The National Cancer Act: What Did It Do?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When was the National Cancer Act signed into law? How far have we since come in our understanding of cancer pathology?

In 1971, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, committing a total of $1.5 billion to cancer research over three years. However, the Act hardly helped us get any closer to curing cancer because it prioritized drug trials rather than developing our understanding of the biology underlying the disease.

Keep reading to learn about the National Cancer Act.

The National Cancer Act

When the National Cancer Act was signed into law in 1971, many scientists and advocates were disappointed with the bill. The Act heavily prioritized clinical drug trials—testing specific drugs and treatments—at the expense of further research into the nature of cancer and other possible methods of treatment.

In 1985, a biologist named John Cairns assembled a comprehensive report on the progress of cancer treatments since the National Cancer Act of 1971. That report, along with a 1986 report by his colleagues John Bailar and Elaine Smith, showed that cancer-related deaths had actually increased during that time period. 

According to Mukherjee, Cairns’s explanation was that the extreme focus on cancer treatment was misguided. Citing precedents like cholera, scurvy, and tuberculosis, Cairns argued that the greatest results always came from preventing diseases, and the same principle must be applied to cancer. 

50 Years Later

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act. However, as Nature magazine says, many challenges still remain in the field of cancer treatment.

When Nixon signed the act into law in 1971, cancer was the second-leading cause of death in America (behind heart disease). In 2021, that fact hadn’t changed: Cancer was still the second-leading cause of death in the country. Furthermore, there’s a major problem that the National Cancer Act didn’t address: cost. In 2021, 42% of Americans with cancer reported suffering extreme financial difficulties within two years of being diagnosed.

However, as we’ll discuss, the news isn’t all bad. While there are still challenges to overcome, the last 50 years have brought huge advances in how we understand and treat cancer, and those advancements show in greatly reduced mortality rates. 

The National Cancer Act: What Did It Do?

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  • An overview and rough timeline of the fight against cancer
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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