Cancer Progress at 35 Years
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By Jessica Gorman

Cancer Progress at 35 Years

By Jessica Gorman


On Dec. 23, 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, officially launching the "war on cancer." Amid the enthusiasm of landing a man on the moon and other scientific achievements, the public had asked the U.S. government to make cancer a priority and find a cure. The act created a National Cancer Program and greatly expanded the role of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which was established in 1937. In the document, Congress indicated that it wanted "to provide for the most effective attack on cancer."

Almost 35 years into these efforts, many patients have replaced the war metaphor with less militaristic language, and the public is no longer waiting for a cure, but many cures, for many different types of cancer. Scientists funded by the research money that followed the National Cancer Act have revealed many of the disease's molecular-level secrets, leading to more targeted treatments and other advances in the last 10 years.

In the early 1990s, the number of cancer deaths per 100,000 Americans began to decline slightly. However, the U.S. population was growing, and the total number of cancer deaths annually continued to climb until 2003. In that year, the most recent for which data are available, the total number of deaths fell slightly for the first time in 70 years. Despite these apparent advances, a 2005 NCI report points to many challenges: The incidence of several cancers is rising; death rates for some cancers are rising (including lung cancer deaths among women); the cost of cancer treatment is rising, and many "unexplained cancer-related health disparities remain among population subgroups." In 2006, the American Cancer Society estimates 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and 565,000 with the disease will die.

Against this backdrop, Congress decreased the budget of the NCI and its parent, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for 2006—the first cut for the NIH since 1970. For 2007, President Bush has proposed another cut to the NCI's budget. In an analysis, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that during efforts to reduce the national budget deficit in the next few years, "NIH will be one of the agencies slated to sacrifice."