No longer at war?

When President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, Americans were still giddy about the Apollo program that had successfully landed the first humans on the moon. After all, we had achieved the national goal set by President John F. Kennedy a mere decade before. And the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew members in 1970, after an oxygen tank rupture had disabled their spacecraft, made us confident that we could not only conquer space but anything we set our minds to.When President Nixon signed that legislation, he placed our greatest hopes and ambitions on the line: If our best and brightest minds could win the Space Race, then certainly we could win the War on Cancer.It has been 40 years and we still haven't won that war--not because we haven't made significant advances in research and treatments but because Cancer isn't a single enemy. During the opening press briefing at this year's conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Harold Varmus, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, said we understand cancer much differently today than we did four decades ago. Perhaps we were naive to think that an act of Congress would lead to a cure for Cancer. Yet no one can deny the success of our nation's investment: Today, two out of three cancer patients live at least five years after a cancer diagnosis, and the overall cancer death rate has dropped by 17 percent.The data being presented at this year's ASCO conference demonstrates "a return on investment" of public and private funding of cancer research, said George W. Sledge Jr., MD, ASCO president. To be sure, there are still major challenges ahead. In these tough economic times, for example, scientists must develop new research models to find better treatments faster. But with more than 12 million American cancer survivors, it's clear that we're doing something right.Tomorrow, I'll be attending a briefing that deals with advances being made in treating cancer as a chronic disease--a very different approach than 40 years ago. Stay tuned.