Over the past century, we have had many wars on cancer, and now we have a national “moonshot” to be spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, announced in President Barack Obama’s Jan. 12 State of the Union Address.
In 1937, even as Congress was establishing the National Cancer Institute as the first of the National Institutes of Health, the American Committee to Combat Cancer was organizing the “Women’s Field Army” to mobilize against cancer, especially uterine, ovarian, and breast cancers. The main argument was that the nation was spending vastly more per person affected, and per death, on polio than it was on cancer. It was framed as a war.
Most famously, in December 1969, Mary Lasker and her Laskerites published full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post throwing down the gauntlet: “Mr. Nixon: You Can Cure Cancer.” And in 1971 we had the National Cancer Act, although by then the goal of curing cancer by 1976 was fading from the bold face type. Most public appeals backed away from one C word, cure, even as the other C word, cancer, became less stigmatized, less private. It became acceptable politics to call cancer out as a public enemy. Rose Kushner, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Happy Rockefeller, Katie Couric, and Angelina Jolie are only a few of the very public faces of cancer and cancer risk.