On December 23, 1971 President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971 into legislation, consequently launching the national War on Cancer. President Nixon supported cancer research throughout his presidency into his years as elder statesman. Addressing cancer patients of the Association of Community Cancer Centers on April 5, 1986, he related his personal experience with the disease as it took the lives of his peers and loved ones.
Speaking about his family President Nixon said:
“There were several reasons for my deep commitment to the cause of finding a cure for cancer. When Mrs. Nixon was only twelve years old her mother died of cancer.
When I was in high school, one of my favorite aunts, to whom I was deeply attached, died of cancer.”
On John Foster Dulles, friend and mentor:
…I shall never forget the last time I saw John Foster Dulles [U.S. Secretary of State during the Eisenhower administration] on May 20, 1959. I often visited him at Walter Reed hospital where he was terminally ill with cancer. As the nurse wheeled him into the reception room that day, I noted that he was painfully thin. His voice was weaker than usual. But his superb mind had become even sharper as his physical condition deteriorated.
When I visited him, he never talked about his physical problems. He always preferred to discuss the great foreign policy issues to which he had devoted his life. On this occasion, I asked him what advice he had for me for my meeting with Khrushchev, which was to take place the following month…He said, ‘Khrushchev does not need to be convinced of our good intentions. He knows we don’t threaten him. He understands us. What he needs to know is that we understand him. Rather than trying to convince him that we are for peace, you should try to convince him that he cannot win a war.’ It was the best advice I ever received on Soviet-American relations. Four days later he died.”
Nixon described his signing the National Cancer Act as something that he hoped “in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during this Administration.”
Since the signing of the act in 1971, one-year survival rates for myeloma has risen approximately 40%, for pancreatic cancer by 11%, and lung cancer by 14% for males, 20% for females.
Resuming Nixon’s war on cancer, President Obama signed the High Mortality Cancer Bill into law on January 3. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, the bill requires NCI “to develop scientific frameworks for addressing cancers with survival rates of less than 50%, with first priority attention to lung and pancreatic cancers.” The war on cancer now prioritizes federal research on the most fatal cancers in sites like the lung, pancreas and colon.
Although the war on cancer wages on, presidential advocacy from Nixon and Obama contribute to the steady increases in cancer survival rates.