The War on Cancer, 40 years later

Friday, December 23, marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a national “War on Cancer.”

On that date in 1971, Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, which allocated $1.5 billion over three years for cancer research and control. He declared, “I hope that in the years ahead we may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during this Administration.”

Forty years later, the War on Cancer can claim countless successes against one of the most resilient and recalcitrant enemies mankind has faced.

Some cancers that were once almost invariably fatal, such as pediatric leukemia, are now cured in the vast majority of cases. In kidney cancer, the five-year survival rate – the percentage of patients alive five years after diagnosis – has increased from about 50 percent in 1971 to more than 70 percent today. In colon cancer, the rate has increased from 52 to more than 66 percent over the same time period. Death rates for cancers of the breast, liver, lung, prostate, and several other organs and tissues have been declining for the past 10-20 years.

At Dana-Farber, we take special pride in the progress of the War on Cancer because our founder, Sidney Farber, MD, was one of the key figures in mobilizing support for it.

As a frequent speaker before Congressional subcommittees, he described the burden of cancer on patients and their families – and the promise of research – in a way that captured the imagination both of legislators and the public at large.

Dr. Sidney Farber (far left) was a White House guest of Pat (second from right) and President Richard Nixon after the president declared his “War on Cancer” and passed the National Cancer Act of 1971. When the president appointed a National Cancer Advisory Board the following March, Dr. Farber was granted a four-year term.













With philanthropist and activist Mary Lasker, Dr. Farber was instrumental in creating the national will to fund and lead an unprecedented commitment to the defeat of cancer. Author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, has described the campaign in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

In 1971, no one was under the illusion that the War on Cancer would be easily or quickly won. At the signing ceremony of the National Cancer Act, Nixon remarked, “We would not want to raise false hopes by simply the signing of an Act,” and time has borne out the complexity of the challenge that cancer represents.

Despite all the strides over the past 40 years, cancer remains one of the biggest health challenges we face. The good news is that advances in the understanding of cancer at the basic, molecular level have positioned us to make even greater progress in the years ahead.