TEXT ON SCREEN: December 23, 1971
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-22-71): PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-23-71):WALTER CRONKITE: President Nixon signed into law today the bill committing more than one and a half billion dollars to a War on Cancer. The 3-year program involves research, diagnosis, prevention and treatment.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-23-71): PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We may look back on this as being the most significant action taken during this administration.
NARRATION: The message seemed clear. With enough resolve, the United States could easily defeat one of its deadliest enemies.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA, 1978):NARRATOR: Cancer
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 2-18-71): DR. JOHN BURCHENAL: Never has the situation been quite so ready to pop with different leads
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: There were some predicting that cancer would be solved by the Bicentennial in 1976.
NARRATION: But it was only a few years before the questions began.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-29-75): WALTER CRONKITE: The American Cancer Society has responded to recent criticism that the federally funded war against cancer has been wasteful and ineffective.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-4-75): BOB JAMIESON: There is little tangible to show for the money that has been spent.
NARRATION: Did the War on Cancer promise too much, too soon? And more than 40 years later, where has the progress against cancer really been made?
THE WAR ON CANCER:
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY, 1-22-71): PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You will have, of course, the total commitment of government, and that is what the signing of this bill now does.
NARRATION: It was called a Christmas present for the American people. On December 23, 1971, at a packed White House ceremony, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. It created a new research infrastructure, with enormous resources, focused on finding a cure for cancer.
DR. JAMES HOLLAND (CANCER RESEARCHER, MT. SINAI SCHOOL OF MEDICINE): It was a joyous day. We went into the east room, and eventually after everybody got seated, the president came in and sat down and with all those pens signing things. Everybody was jubilant, even President Nixon.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY, 1-23-71):DR. ALVA LETTON (ACS PRESIDENT): This bill has the possibility of doing more for humanity than any other single act the US has ever undertaken.
NARRATION: The press immediately dubbed it Nixons War on Cancer.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY (CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY): Its very interesting that people call it President Nixons War on Cancer. Richard Nixon really sort of got on the bandwagon late in the game.
NARRATION: In fact, President Nixon originally planned to cut the budget for cancer research. That threat propelled advocates and scientists, like Dr. James Holland, into action.
JAMES HOLLAND: The idea came for a major effort against cancer really was a constellation of people, but headed by Mary Lasker, who was a philanthropist.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-22-59): EDWARD R. MURROW: Mrs. Albert D. Lasker is a woman of many and varied interestsflowers and philanthropy, cancer research and community welfare.
NARRATION: The wealthy widow of a successful New York ad man, Lasker was a master at both politics and public relations.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-22-59): MARY LASKER: The amount of money thats being spent for medical research iswell its just piddling. You wont believe this, but less is spent on cancer research than we spend on chewing gum.
NARRATION: She began a media campaign to convince Congress, and the public, that with the right commitment, cancer could be cured, and that the time was now.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: In the mid-1960s some chemotherapies were developed that actually did cure some children of childhood leukemia.
NARRATION: Some were cured by Dr. Holland. A pioneer in treating childhood leukemia, he joined a special panel of experts put together by Mary Lasker.
DR. JAMES HOLLAND: I presented this to Congressmen many times in different appearances. It became clear we were succeeding.
NARRATION: Mary Laskers message was simple: if we could cure childhood leukemia, we could cure other cancers, despite the fact that little was known about how the disease works.
DR. JAMES HOLLAND: She asked me my opinion of what should be done, and I said, Mrs. Lasker, I think we need more basic science. And she really almost exploded and said, Dont tell me about basic science. What we need is medicine for the people.
NARRATION: As the Cancer Act took shape in Congress, Laskers close friend Ann Landers wrote a column urging readers to contact their representatives. About a quarter of a million people did.
DR. JAMES HOLLAND: So this was very popular. And I think Nixon surrendered, really. And of all the people that I know, the most important person in the whole cancer revolution in the United States is Mary Lasker, because she made the whole thing happen.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA):NARRATOR: This is the enemy.
NARRATION: It did not take long before expectations of quick victory cast a shadow over the cancer effort.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-4-75):BOB JAMIESON: Some in the medical and scientific communities are saying that the war on cancer has been a costly error.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-1-81): JOHN CHANCELLOR: 10 years ago the United States declared war on cancer. It has been more difficult than splitting the atom or getting to the moon.
NARRATION: The idea that cancer could be cured with a major effort, like the one that took man to the moon, helped pass the Cancer Act. But the problem was, scientists still didnt know how cancer worked, including why cancer cells grow so uncontrollably.
FRAN VISCO (PRESIDENT, NATIONAL BREAST CANCER COALITION): I think it was a bit nave at the time to think that we could end cancer in five years or even ten years because we really didnt have the knowledge, the tools or the technology to do that. But, it is very important that this country decided to take on cancer.
NARRATION: In the years since, the news media has been quick to herald every new potential breakthrough.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 3-22-94):DAN RATHER: There is new and promising research out tonight in the war against cancer.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 3-22-94): REPORTER: Immune Therapy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 3-22-94): REPORTER: Interleukin-2.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-8-94): ANCHOR: Herceptin.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-4-86): PETER JENNINGS: Interferon.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-5-86): DR. FRANK YOUNG: This is a milestone, a breakthrough, and a sign of what is likely to come.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 4-24-80): FRANK REYNOLDS: Progress toward controlling certain forms of cancer may be possible.
NARRATION: But some treatments ended up hurting patients as much, or more, than helping them.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 12-12-86): PETER JENNINGS: A year ago some scientists and certainly some reporters were using the word breakthrough to describe the capabilities of a drug called Interleukin-2. Well, today the Journal of the American Medical Association warns that the treatments side effects and astronomical costs appear to outweigh any potential benefit to the patient.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Some of the fads that have come about have been very high-tech things that people thought must be useful. Bone marrow transplant in breast cancer is a classic example.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 4-11-90): DR. HENRY LYNCH: We recommended bone marrow transplantation. This was the only chance for Patricias survival.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-4-00): ELIZABETH VARGAS: It is a treatment that was once the hope of thousands of breast cancer patients. Now that hope has dimmed.
FRAN VISCO: It took us over ten years to find out that bone marrow transplants, which are incredibly toxic, and did kill some patients, were no better than standard chemotherapy.
NARRATION: At the Cancer Acts 20th Anniversary, death rates were still rising, and critics still thought of the research effort as a battle we could win or lose.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-2-98): PETER JENNINGS: So why, in spite of all the effort and all of the money, is the fight against cancer so difficult?
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-2-98): RICHARD KLAUSNER: Its frustrating. We want it to go faster. But we cant get around that single truth, that is, the problem is incredibly hard.
NARRATION: Scientists insisted they were learning what they needed to know about cancer, and that it was unrealistic to expect quick cures.
DR. JOHN HOLLAND: This is not a war. Were not aiming at one specific enemy. Cancer is not a single disease like polio. This is many hundreds of diseases. So, a silver bullet is a misconception.
NARRATION: In 1998, the story finally began to change.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-12-98): TOM BROKAW: For the first time, cancer rates and the number of deaths from cancer are beginning to go down.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-12-98): REPORTER: But these latest numbers show that while progress is slow, the war on cancer is not a lost cause.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA):MAN: Were gaining in the fight against cancer. Im living proof.
NARRATION: But the progress did not come from any major breakthrough or treatment.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA, 1964): MAN: I had cancer.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: When I look at why people are not dying from cancer, its actually cancer prevention.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA): NARRATOR: Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child? You do, every time you smoke while pregnant.
ARCHIVAL (1-11-64): SURGEON GENERAL LUTHER TERRY: Cigarette smoking contributes substantially to the overall death rate.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: The National Cancer Act may have had less to do with the decline that weve had than Luther Terrys announcement in 1964 that tobacco abuse causes lung cancer.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA, 1971): JOHN WAYNE: Thats me 7 years after surgery in True Grit, cause I did myself a favor and got a checkup.
NARRATION: Another reason for the decline: early detection and screening. Although controversial for some cancers, screening has been especially colon and cervical cancers.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-3-96): TOM BROKAW: A review conducted by the National Institutes of Health has concluded that deaths from cervical cancer are 100% completely preventable.
ARCHIVAL (NBCS STAND UP TO CANCER ON LINE): DOCTOR: Shes clean as a whistle, this is a perfectly normal examination.
NARRATION: And, up to 20,000 lives could be saved each year if more Americans got screened for colon cancer.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 12-7-09): CHARLES GIBSON: The number of new cancer cases, down.the rate of cancer deaths, down.
NARRATION: The cancer death rate is 11% lower for men and 6% lower for women than when the National Cancer Act was passed, and 20% below the peak in 1991. But no one is declaring victory yet.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-14-13): DIANE SAWYER: The death rate of some cancers is rising: those associated with obesity and a lack of exercise. They include cancers of the pancreas, kidney and liver and those cancers are responsible for about a third of the deaths each year.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: It is possible that over the next 10 to 20 years that this obesity epidemic is going to overwhelm our declines in mortality, and mortality from cancer will start going back up.
NARRATION: And, with the exception of a few cancers, including testicular cancer, some leukemias and lymphomas, we still cant cure most patients one the disease metastasizes. An estimated 600,000 Americans die each year.
FRAN VISCO: In breast cancer, the mortality rates have gone down, but nowhere near commensurate with the amount of money and attention weve invested. We still lose in this country, 40,000 women a year. Now, that is not success. That is not real progress.
NARRATION: Since the Cancer Act was signed, the federal government has spent more than $100 billion on research, and we are making gains in controlling cancer through treatment. One example, new targeted drugs that stop some cancers from growing.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: As weve learned whats going on inside the cell, weve learned what mechanisms are going haywire. Weve actually found drugs that can interfere with those mechanisms. Cancer being uncontrolled cell growth, were stopping the growth.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA, 1971): DR. JOHN HOLLAND: There wont be a single answer for all of cancers.
NARRATION: After more than 50 years in the field, Dr. Holland says we have come a long way.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY PSA, 1971): DR. JOHN HOLLAND: cancer can be beat.
JAMES HOLLAND: Am I satisfied? No, of course not, because theres still people dying and theres still cancers we dont know what to do for. But were making progress. Is it as fast as wed like? No.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: I wish that we had tried to convince people this was an investment in research which was long-term. I wish some people had not assumed we would make tremendous insights very quickly. Unfortunately, human nature is such that if people had realized that this was a 40, 50, 60 year commitment they wouldnt have gone for it.