Setting the Stage for the Conquest of Cancer

Cancer Progress Report 2011: Contents

The National Cancer Act of 1971​

Historically the United States has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to the fight against cancer. Our Nation’s policymakers’ long-standing, bipartisan commitment to reducing the burden of cancer has resulted in countless notable successes and has created an extraordinary foundation of scientific knowledge and an ever-increasing understanding of this devastating disease.

The conquest of cancer became a cornerstone of our Nation’s health agenda as far back as 1937, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Cancer Institute Act which established the country’s first-ever independent research institute to “provide for, foster, and aid in coordinating research related to cancer.”

Twenty-five years later, then President John F. Kennedy declared that Americans would land on the moon before the end of the decade—and we did. This seemingly impossible achievement, coupled with the success of the polio vaccine and the thought that there could be a viral basis for certain cancers, clearly focused national pride and reinforced the belief that, given the necessary resources, U.S. scientists could accomplish the “impossible” and conquer cancer.  

It was in this environment that philanthropist Mary Lasker, Sidney Farber, M.D. from Children’s Hospital Boston, and Benno Schmidt, Jr., former Chairman of the Congressionally established National Panel of Consultants on The Conquest of Cancer, led an unprecedented research advocacy effort that inspired President Nixon and Congress to enact the historic legislation that marked a turning point in the Nation’s efforts to prevent and cure cancer (see Cancer Research Advocacy Community Sidebar and meet cancer survivor and cancer research advocate Josh Sommer).

The National Cancer Act of 1971 had the bipartisan support of Congressional lawmakers, who recognized the importance of the government’s commitment to conquering cancer by advancing cancer research. The Act, which set in motion a coordinated and focused approach to cancer research, was applauded by millions of Americans whose lives would be forever altered by the words, “You have cancer.”

In the period leading up to the passage of the National Cancer Act, the opinion of policymakers was that if something as seemingly impossible as landing on the moon could be accomplished, how much harder could it be to cure cancer? As we now know, curing all cancers would turn out to be harder than anyone could have imagined. In fact, the scientific discoveries that have permitted us to grasp and increasingly understand the extraordinary complexity of cancer were just being uncovered in the early 1970s. Perhaps the most astounding discovery made during these formative years was how “clever” cancer cells are—often defying expectations by changing and adapting to new interventions.

Today, thanks to the fundamental discoveries made possible by our Nation’s investment in scientific research, we know that there are more than 200 diseases that we call cancer. We are also now learning how to identify and interpret a cancer cell’s unique molecular characteristics. These biological markers, or biomarkers, are making it possible to detect cancer earlier, identify high-risk individuals and populations, and develop more effective and less toxic cancer treatments that work by targeting and blocking the specific proteins, enzymes, and signals that fuel the growth of these different types of cancer cells.

The federal government's support of research has provided our newfound understanding of cancer at the molecular level, which has revolutionized the characterization of cancers, drug development, clinical trials, prevention, and treatment. Further, the advances made against cancer have had significant implications for the treatment of other costly diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and macular degeneration. The pages that follow chronicle much of the progress that has been made against cancer.

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Cancer Progress Report 2011 Contents

American Association for Cancer Research Foundation
The AACR Cancer Progress Report is published by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The mission of the AACR is to prevent and cure cancer through research, education, communication, and collaboration.

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