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50 years ago this week President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. Because of that law, the U.S. government has now invested far more money into fighting cancer than any other disease. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR takes us back to the origins of the law and looks at the impact it's had ever since.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The National Cancer Act can be traced back to a shack in Watertown, Wis., in the early 1900s. A little girl named Mary tagged along as her mother went to visit their housekeeper, Mrs. Belter. Mary stepped into the small room where Mrs. Belter lay sick with breast cancer, her seven children crowded around. That little girl, Mary, grew up to be Mary Lasker, an activist for cancer research.

CLAIRE POMEROY: She remembers the pain that Mrs. Belter was in and, I think, the hopelessness that there was for her prognosis.

EMANUEL: Claire Pomeroy is president of the Lasker Foundation. Mary Lasker died in 1994, having spent decades as a philanthropist and citizen lobbyist persuading Washington's elite to support medical research.

POMEROY: She was relentless.

EMANUEL: For the first half of the 1900s, cancer was seen as contagious. It was shameful and a death sentence.

POMEROY: People wouldn't even use the word cancer. If they mentioned it, they whispered, the Big C.

EMANUEL: But Lasker argued, if you don't talk about it, you can't make progress. Cancer couldn't be said on the radio. Lasker changed that with the help of her husband, a major ad executive. And for newspapers, she convinced her friend, advice columnist Ann Landers, to write about cancer. But, Pomeroy says, Lasker also knew that government would need to help.

POMEROY: She did understand that NASA was doing incredible things.

EMANUEL: So Lasker argued that the U.S. could also do a moonshot to defeat cancer. She lobbied Congress and spent hours schmoozing at the White House with her friends, President Johnson and Lady Bird. Meanwhile, just a few miles away in Maryland, a young doctor named Robert Mayer (ph) was just starting his career at the National Cancer Institute.

ROBERT MAYER: Every Sunday night, the planes would fly in with patients.

EMANUEL: The patients were children with leukemia arriving for chemotherapy. At the time, only a handful of hospitals in the country were trying to aggressively treat and cure cancers.

MAYER: My colleagues thought we were so crazy that we would be giving people cell poisons, which is what chemotherapy was thought to be.

EMANUEL: Mayer, who now works in Boston, says back then, chemotherapy was experimental. But it worked. For some pediatric cancers, the chance of survival went from zero to more than half.

MAYER: It wasn't just that they were people, they were children. And they were children at an adorable age of 3 or 4 or 5.

EMANUEL: As the stories of these children trickled out, a sense of optimism took hold. Maybe cancer could be cured. Still, Mary Lasker felt that the government wasn't spending enough. In a 1972 interview, she explained how she took out targeted newspaper ads to increase the pressure on Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY LASKER: Well, this absolutely shocked the people in the House because they never had ads before. And people were calling up from their districts, sending telegrams and this and that. And it caused a little commotion.

EMANUEL: She also kept pestering President Nixon publicly. She paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post. In big letters, it said, Mr. Nixon, you can cure cancer. The work of Lasker and other activists and scientists paid off on December 23, 1971, in the White House dining room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LASKER: And there were about 250 people there, many of them who had done their utmost to defeat the bill in one way or another, all taking a lot of credit and drinking coffee and talking to each other and - (laughter).

EMANUEL: Before signing the bill, President Nixon said he hoped he would be remembered for pushing forward the fight against cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Everything that can be done by government, everything that can be done by voluntary agencies in this great, powerful, rich country, now will be done.

EMANUEL: The National Cancer Act funded research, set up training programs and built a nationwide network of cancer centers. The act invested more than $1.6 billion. That's $10 billion in today's terms. And it built up expectations. Some even thought cancer might be cured as soon as 1976, according to Robin Wolfe Scheffler, a historian at MIT.

ROBIN WOLFE SCHEFFLER: There's a great deal of frustration in roughly 1978. People declare the war on cancer a medical Vietnam.

EMANUEL: Critics were pointing out that even with all that money pouring in, people kept dying of cancer at higher and higher rates all through the '70s and '80s. But Ned Sharpless, the current director of the National Cancer Institute, says it simply took time for the investments to pay off.

NED SHARPLESS: All this basic biology was bubbling beneath the surface. It didn't look like much was happening in terms of cancer outcomes. But a lot was happening in the sort of cancer research space.

EMANUEL: These days, 600,000 Americans still die from cancer every year. But the death rates for all cancers have dropped. They're about a third lower than their peak in 1991. Now there are new genetic screening tools and targeted therapies for lung cancer, melanoma and others.

SHARPLESS: But those same effective approaches to cancer are not reaching the entire American population.

EMANUEL: For example, certain states in the South and Midwest have higher rates of cancer deaths, particularly those places that haven't expanded Medicaid. Going forward, the goal is to make sure that no matter where you live, what race you are or how much you earn, you still have access to 50 years of cancer progress. For NPR news, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "EARLY LIGHT")

BLOCK: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WBUR and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "EARLY LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.