Cancer is a word that continues, deservedly, to conjure fear in America. While the “war on cancer” was officially declared in 1971 by President Richard Nixon, cancer was already known as a growing burden to society by the early 1900s. Between the years 1901 and 1911, cancer was already increasing at an alarming rate and was identified as the leading cause of death for middle-aged and older men and women in the U.S. By 1913, cancer was killing 75,000 Americans a year, becoming a genuine and deepening problem for the nation. Today, cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death, after heart disease, with an annual death toll of 595,000 Americans. This, despite enormous funding flows to government, universities, and associations combating the disease.
America’s first concerted effort on cancer began in 1937 with the construction of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a center of the National Institutes of Health whose main role has been to coordinate the U.S. National Cancer Program and to conduct and support research.
The next phase of efforts occurred three decades later upon Nixon signing the National Cancer Act to “eradicate cancer as a major cause of death.” The Act intended to strengthen the NCI through increased funding for its cancer research programs. Since then, the national response to addressing the growing cancer burden has been to increase funding for national and university research institutes to find “the cure”. To date, the cure has yet to be found.
At the signing of the Act in 1971, the budget for the NCI was $200 million, today it has reached $5.21 billion. While a cancer cure has yet to be discovered, funding for cancer research has resulted in more available treatments and a decline in cancer deaths. In 1971, 30 drugs were approved for cancer, today over 300 cancer drugs exist. Five-year survival rates have increased by 33% since the mid 1970’s, resulting in 12 million cancer survivors today. While there has been progress, in many respects progress has been misleading. We have yet to radically transform cancer incidence and impact on individuals’ lives and costs of cancer to our society. By 2030, cancer will claim the lives of 620,000 Americans.
During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead a new, national “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer as we know it. President Obama pledged $1 billion dollars to provide the funding necessary for researchers to accelerate the development of new cancer detection and treatments. But it is fair to ask whether this new approach will be enough to fundamentally transform the trajectory of cancer incidence and death in this country. Will increased funding to the major cancer research centers reverse the course of cancer in the U.S. once and for all?