Cancer is among the top killers in the United States, affecting many millions of people. Often times, people you may have known for your entire life suddenly change and become sickly, less active, and much weaker, and often times their quality of life plummets. In the early 1970s, the Nixon Administration recognized this growing problem, and pursued legislation to fight back against the evils of cancer.
In 1971, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law, now considered the far-reaching legislation which began the War on Cancer – a phrase popularized by RN himself. Indeed, many in the scientific community have credited the law with beginning the process which has resulted in a decrease in the cancer mortality rates.

With new awareness, energy, and passion in the country for fighting cancer, the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute jointly hosted a National Cancer Conference in Los Angeles, attended by over 1500 physicians, cancer specialists and experts – as well as the President, who made an appearance on September 28, 1972.

But the fight against cancer didn’t end with throwing money at the problem, so to speak. And RN made the point as well: “The Government, which I represent in this particular capacity, can help to provide the resources, but you are the ones who do the work.”

And the progress made in a mere two years is striking: “We have more than doubled the Federal budget for cancer, to over $450 million. We have converted the facilities at Fort Detrick [in Frederick, Maryland] from research on biological weapons to cancer research, and the National Cancer Institute has been strengthened and streamlined, made directly accountable to the President. We have established the new National Cancer Advisory Board, the President’s Cancer Panel, to help us coordinate our resources in the Government[…]”

His expertise in foreign policy evident, President Nixon also noted “that both in my conversations with Premier Chou En-lai and my conversations with Mr. [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Aleksei] Kosygin, [Nicolai] Podgorny, and their colleagues, that this was one area where there was no question of the desire to work together, to cooperate.” In other words, a common desire to fight cancer increased the frequency of communication and bonds between the United States and some of its staunchest ideological foes. The need to save their citizens helped to forge pacts. RN even suggested that American and Soviet scientists research at Fort Detrick together – indeed a novelty idea at the time. Fort Detrick is now one of the leading biomedical and development centers in the world.

“I understand that each year in the United States more people die of cancer than were killed in action in all of World War II,” the President said. “I know and you know that there is no battle that is more important than the one you are waging, and our best wishes go with you as well as the resources that the Government can provide.”

The results attained by America’s fight against cancer, beginning with the National Cancer Act, are very positive, not to mention useful. From 1975 to 2000, the five year survival rate for those with cancer has increased sixteen percent, from 50% to 66%. Tremendous improvements in cancer survival have been recorded since the mid 1970s.

Dr. Averill Denton, head of the American Cancer Society with President Nixon at the signing of the National Cancer Act on December 23, 1971.