Race for the Cure

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By Paul A. Marks ’46CC, ’49PS, president emeritus of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, from his 2014 book On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution (PublicAffairs).


The media coverage [of cancer research] reflects the seemingly random intensity and unpredictability of the disease and a widely shared frustration that American ingenuity has failed to find the final “cure” President Nixon promised when he launched the “war on cancer” nearly a half century ago. The other war at that time, in Vietnam, was mired in an insurgency. The enemy was relentless, absorbing our bombs and then regrouping and fighting back. The war on cancer, everyone expected, would be different. I think many people felt, instinctively, that it would restore our moral edge.

From the start, the campaign against cancer was laced with a sense of heroism by being compared to the race to the moon — a race that, of course, we won. It was to be a medical Manhattan Project, another heroic success. And that has been the problem. If American scientists could build an atomic bomb in just a few years in the New Mexico desert, if they could fly a man into the heavens and land him on the moon ahead of the Soviets, if we could cure smallpox and polio, then surely nothing could prevent us from defeating cancer. How could any barrier stand in the way of American spirit, American technology, and American money?

It was a seductive narrative, which in no way prepared people for the reality that all cancers would never be curable by a single pill. The metaphorical failure of the metaphorical war on cancer felt to many people like a reaffirmation of the rottenness of the end of the Nixon era, as though it were a moral failing on the part of government that denied us a cure. It is a story without foundation, one that pays no attention to the singular power and elusiveness of the disease itself.

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