December 23, Forty Years Later: Are We Winning?

On December 23, 1971 President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971 — sometimes called the War on Cancer.  Earlier that year in his State of the Union Address, the President had said,

The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.

Among other things, the legislation

  • Strengthened the National Cancer Institute.
  • Made the NCI Director a Presidential appointee.
  • Provided $400 million to the NCI for 1972.
  • Put funding for NCI into a direct bypass budget.
  • Gave NCI the power to establish cancer centers and fund research grants.

In 1975 half adults and children with cancer died. Today nearly 7 out of 10 adults and 8 out of 10 children will be alive five years after they are diagnosed.

So are we winning?


  • Between 1990 and 2007, cancer death rates went down 22% for men and 14% for women.
  • Over a similar time, death rates from colorectal cancer went down 33.4% for men and 28.4% for women.
  • From a single, fifties-era chemo drug for colorectal cancer, we now have 7 approved drugs and targeted agents.
  • Colorectal cancer screening, brand-new in 1970, now is a major force in preventing colorectal cancer.
  • Chemotherapy after surgery for local and regional colon cancer has pushed the cure rate up to 75%.
  • Better imaging and better surgery is now curing more metastatic colorectal cancer.


  • In 2010, 571,950 people in the United States died from cancer.  That’s more than one person every minute of every day.
  • This year 49,380 men and women will die from colorectal cancer, nearly 6 people every hour.
  • While fewer people are smoking, obesity is increasing and people are sitting more and exercising less.
  • Essentially flat budgets for the NCI since 2003 have meant a loss in research purchasing power of over $1 billion.

“In order to win the war against cancer, we must fund the war against cancer.”  President George W. Bush, September 18, 2002.


Have we been asking the wrong questions?

In a recent interview with Medscape Today, Harold Varmus, MD, Director of the National Cancer Institute said that the war on cancer metaphor is no longer valid,

First of all, I think we’ve changed the metaphor. It’s inaccurate, in my view, to think of a war on cancer as though cancer were a single, individual enemy, nor is the metaphor of war exactly right. We now understand that cancer is actually a constellation of diseases, many different diseases arising in different tissues. Indeed the number of diseases that cancer represents has only multiplied over the last 40 years as we understand more and more about how cancers arise.

Second, we understand that cancer is an outgrowth of some fundamental principles of biology, how genes control our development, how development goes awry, how different genes can influence the initiation and progression of cancer.

For more information on progress toward ending suffering and death from cancer:

In the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2011, AACR leaders write,

We live in an unprecedented time of scientific opportunities, and our commitment to prevent and cure cancer has never been stronger.

Fight Colorectal Cancer agrees.


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