If It’s Not a War on Cancer, What Is It?

BY Jason Kane  December 23, 2011 at 9:00 AM EDT

President Nixon signs the National Cancer Act in 1971. Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

It was President Richard Nixon’s “Christmas gift to the nation.” On Dec. 23, 1971, he faced a crowd full of congressmen and television cameras in the East Room of the White House and declared “total national commitment” to finding a cure for cancer and the funds — “whatever is necessary” — for the “conquest” of the disease.

What he didn’t call it was a “war.” The president hoped that signing the National Cancer Act would become the medical equivalent of America’s decision to send men to the moon. “I hope in the years ahead, we may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during this administration,” he said.

Americans — still embroiled in an unraveling Vietnam War — still opted for that metaphor: “War on Cancer.”

Forty years later, the metaphor remains firmly entrenched. It’s meant to conjure all the trappings of war: the flag-waving support, unflinching resolve and prolonged bombardment that can only end well in total victory. With enough federal dollars and an army of scientists and physicians, the thought goes, cancer can be brought to its knees.

But many of those on the “front lines” say there’s a problem with all of that. Calling it a war implies that cancer is a single enemy — not hundreds of distinct forms of it, each with its own sub-sections. For many cancer victims, the “fight like hell” battle cry can lead to feelings of defeat and shame if they decide another expensive and painful round of treatment just isn’t for them.

Which begs the question: If it’s not a war on cancer, what is it? Is there a more accurate, less violent way to frame the discussion and hold the public’s attention? Below, some of the nation’s top oncology experts weigh in on the mental image they would like to see replace America’s longest-lasting “war.”

What do you think is the best metaphor? Leave your own ideas in the comments section.

Stay tuned to The PBS NewsHour in the weeks ahead for health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser’s series of reports from Northern California on the astonishing gains made in pediatric cancer since 1971 — and some of the research now underway that could help other forms of cancer treatment catch up soon.