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The first documented case of cancer in history comes from ancient Egypt from around 1500 BC. It was a case of breast cancer, which ancient Egyptians treated by destroying the tissue using a heated instrument – an early form of cauterization. However, cancer as a whole was not understood or studied in any detail for centuries to come.

It stands to reason that early forms of cancer research – trying to determine what the disease exactly is, where it comes from, and how it spreads – were steeped in a great deal of trial and error. And because cancer was not well understood, it was also frequently misdiagnosed or written off as a death sentence.

This blog post will explore the beginnings and history of cancer research in the United States, from the early 1900s up until today. We will take a look at how the disease was viewed at the time, as well as the circumstances surrounding cancer research funding and initiatives.


By the start of the 20th century, much had been discovered about cancer.

For example, thanks to the development of the modern microscope, scientists were able to see cancer cells under a microscope and observe their abnormal behavior. It was determined that cancer spreads from a primary tumor to other sites in the body via the lymph nodes.

However, the cause of cancer was still unknown. Some scientists believed that it was a result of environmental factors, while others thought that it was hereditary.

The early 1900s were a time of great uncertainty for those affected by cancer. There was little understanding of the disease and almost no effective treatments or cures. Many people with cancer opted for surgery in the hopes of a cure, without knowing what their prospects truly were.

Radiation therapy was in its infancy. Around 1901, radiation therapy was first used to treat cancer by destroying tumors with x-rays. However, not long after, it was discovered that radiation could cause cancer as well as cure it.

It became clear that more research was needed to understand cancer and find better ways to treat it.


The first-ever center dedicated solely to cancer research in the United States was founded in 1898 in Buffalo, New York, by Roswell Park, a surgery professor at the University of Buffalo. It is still in operation today and is now known as the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Roswell Park center was quickly followed by other centers of the same kind, such as the Rockefeller Institute, The Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia University, and similar.

Even though government support for cancer research was virtually non-existent at this time, these early research centers were able to thrive due to the generous donations of wealthy individuals.


In 1907, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) was founded with the goal of advancing cancer research. Their single purpose was “to further the investigation and spread the knowledge of cancer.” The AACR is one of the oldest and largest professional organizations dedicated to advancing cancer research.

During the AACR’s first-ever scientific meeting in 1907, a total of nine papers were presented among the attendees. Two were on the topic of using transfusions in cancer treatment, five talked about tumor transplantation in experimental animals, and two were written with the goal of disproving the theory that cancer was an infectious disease.

For the first decade, the AACR focused on spreading knowledge about cancer in their annual meetings. Membership fees were very low, and there was no fee for attending the annual meeting. The AACR started the first cancer journal in English in 1916, named The Journal of Cancer Research. In 1931, this journal was replaced by The American Journal of Cancer. Both journals published original research, reviews, and short communications.

The American Cancer Society

In 1913, a group of 10 physicians and five lay people in New York City founded the American Cancer Society(ACS) to raise public awareness about cancer.

Since then, the ACS has been one of the largest voluntary health organizations in the United States, with over 151,000 members. Their mission is to “save lives, celebrate lives, and lead the fight for a world without cancer.”

The ACS has played a major role in funding cancer research throughout its history. In 1937, they helped lobby for the passage of the National Cancer Act, which provided federal funding for cancer research for the first time ever, and established the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as the primary federal agency for cancer research.

The ACS also funds patient support programs, education and outreach programs, and advocacy initiatives. Since 1946, they have invested more than $5 billion in various research grants and programs.


The National Cancer Act of 1937 was the first federally funded cancer research initiative in the United States. It was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it effectively established the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

One of the major goals of this Act was to “provide training facilities where scientists could be brought and given instruction either in methods of research or in methods of diagnosis and treatment essential to the full development of cancer control work.”

The Act also provided funds for research on the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. It was a culmination of around 30 years of lobbying by various cancer organizations, including the AACR and the ACS, to formalize and support cancer research.

The Act was amended in 1971 to broaden the NCI’s mission.


On December 23, 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, largely known as the start of the “war on cancer.” This Act was a major overhaul of the National Cancer Act of 1937 and aimed to expand cancer research and treatment capabilities.

The NCI was reauthorized and received an increased budget, which allowed for the establishment of new research centers, the development of new treatments, and the support of cancer research initiatives across the country. The NCI was now in charge of developing a National Cancer Program together with other research institutions.

This Act also led to the creation of the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB), which was responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the NCI in developing its programs.

This Act is widely considered the beginning of the modern era of cancer research.


As we enter the 21st century, cancer research funding is at an all-time high. The National Cancer Institute’s budget has increased over the years, and new organizations have been established to support cancer research, such as the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Breakthroughs in cancer treatment are being made every day.

However, the search for a definitive cure to cancer remains an ongoing effort. Even though we now know so much more than we did 100 years ago, there is still much to be learned. The progress that has been made in cancer research so far is thanks to the dedication and hard work of many people over many decades. We can only hope that continued investment in cancer research will one day lead to a cure for this devastating disease.

If you’d like to join the war on cancer, don’t hesitate to look at our active campaigns. Music Beats Cancer is dedicated to supporting innovators who are working on translating cancer research discoveries into real medicines/solutions in the clinic. Please consider donating.

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