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Why Commemorate 50 Years of the National Cancer Act?

There have been few events that have had as remarkable and long-lasting an impact on how cancer is studied, treated, and even contemplated as the National Cancer Act of 1971.

Signed just a few days before Christmas by President Richard Nixon, the act created a national commitment to making progress against cancer by anticipating and creating the infrastructure and mechanisms needed for a large-scale, world-class cancer research enterprise.

Access the interactive transcript and audio-described version of “The Gift of Time - 50th Anniversary of the National Cancer Act” video.

A New, Coordinated Approach to Fighting Cancer

At the time, not everybody was happy with the act. Some thought it too bold, others that it wasn’t ambitious enough. President Nixon, in his remarks at the signing, stated, “As a result of the action which will come into being as a result of signing this bill, the Congress is totally committed to provide the funds that are necessary, whatever is necessary, for the conquest of cancer.”

And as the years have revealed, that single piece of legislation set in motion a chain of events that created a research enterprise of unimaginable depth and complexity. Among numerous other accomplishments, the National Cancer Act of 1971 established NCI’s Cancer Centers Program and expanded the National Clinical Trials Network, supporting the development of systems for the collection and storage of comprehensive patient data. It also cemented our nation’s commitment to basic research, without which many breakthroughs could not be made.

Advancing Research Gives the Gift of More Time

The history of cancer is one of great pain and tragedy. Cancer has taken more lives than one can fathom, causing immense suffering in its wake. But its story is also one of perseverance, ingenuity, and discovery.

We have a research community deeply committed to pursuing novel ideas and building on past discoveries. We have oncologists and nurses and numerous other providers around the country who, day after day, devote themselves to providing the best care they can. And we have an advocacy community that is relentlessly focused on supporting these efforts and ensuring that the patient’s voice is not lost in statistical measurements or health care bureaucracy.

From the collective work and dedication of these researchers, health care professionals, patients, and advocates, our understanding of cancer’s complexity and all that contributes to it is beyond what any of those present that day 50 years ago in Washington, DC, could have imagined. And that understanding has been translated into advances that have changed what it means to be diagnosed with cancer.

These advances—from learning how to harness the immune system against cancer to developing evidence-based programs for dramatically reducing smoking and the use of other tobacco products—weren’t the result of one person, research team, or organization. It has been a collaborative effort, marked by actions, initiatives, and ideas both small and grand in scale.

As We Look to the Future, Nothing Will Stop Us

At NCI, as we enter the 50th anniversary year of this landmark legislation, we’re taking the opportunity to commemorate those who have paved the path of progress. Throughout 2021, we’ll be sharing some of these stories of progress. We will also be joining with others across the cancer community to share these stories and tell the tale of the last 50 years of cancer research.

In doing so, we hope to provide a clear picture of where, as a community, we’ve been. Of course, we can’t underestimate the challenges that remain. But, hopefully, this look back over the past 50 years will help us all appreciate even more the progress that’s been and the promise that—thanks in no small part to the National Cancer Act—the future holds.

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