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Acting against cancer; for all of America's accomplishments in this century, the conquest of cancer could be our greatest victory.

ACTING AGAINST CANCER

When I signed The National Cancer Act two days before Christmas in 1971, I said: "I hope in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during this administration."

How could I say that, particularly in view of what had happened in just that year: the first steps toward a historic new relationship between China and the United States, the announcement of my trip to Moscow that led to the first Soviet-U.S. nuclear-armslimitation agreements, and the reduction of our forces and casualties in Vietnam by 75 percent-all major steps toward a more peaceful world? How could a new cancer initiative compare with them in importance?

We must recognize that more Americans die each year from cancer than were killed in action in all four years of World War II.

From a personal standpoint, however, there were several reasons for my deep commitment to finding a cure for cancer: When Mrs. Nixon was only 12 years old, her mother died of cancer. And when I was in high school, an aunt to whom I was deeply attached died of cancer.

While I was vice-president, three other incidents became seared in my memory. Early in 1953 I spoke to the President's Business Advisory Council, in Hot Springs, Virginia. Sen. Robert Taft prceded me on the program. He made some uncharacteristically rude remarks about businessmen that shocked those in the audience, most of whom were his friends. Upon completing his remarks, he abruptly got up and left the room, and pushed his wife, Martha, in her wheelchair, ahead of him. I noticed his limp as he walked. I turned to the chairman and said, "Ignore his comments. I sense that he just isn't feeling well." Two months later Taft died of cancer.

I shall never forget the last time I saw John Foster Dulles, on May 20, 1959. I often visited him at Walter Reed Hospital, where he was terminally ill with cancer. As the nurse wheeled him into the reception room that day, I noted that he was painfully thin. His voice was weaker than usual. But his superb mind had become even sharper as his physical condition had deteriorated.

He never talked about his physical problems during my visits, preferring instead to discuss the great foreign-policy issues to which he had devoted his life. On this occasion, I asked Dulles what advice he had for my meeting with Khrushchev, to take place the following month. I told him that some Soviet experts in the media were insisting my major goal should be to convince the Russian leader that the United States did not threaten him and that we were sincerely for peace. He disagreed. "Khrushchev does not need to be convinced of our good intentions," he said. "He knows we don't threaten him. He understands us. What he needs to know is that we understand him. Rather than trying to convince him that we are for peace, you should try to convince him that he cannot win a war." It was the best advice I ever received on Soviet-American relations. Four days later, Dulles died.

My most vivid recollection is of a day when I was presiding over the Senate. The regular chaplain was out of town, and a visiting chaplain gave the invocation. I always listened to the invocation, because more often than not it was the best speech of the day--which may be damning it with faint praise. Afterward, I shook hands with him, and he asked me for an autograph for his daughter, who, as I recall, was about eight years old, the same age my daughter Julie was. The chaplain told me his daughter was an only child. He and his wife had always wanted children, and when this little girl was born after 15 years of marriage, she was a gift from heaven. I asked him where she went to school, and he told me that she was no longer able to go to school--she was at the National Health Institute and was being treated for leukemia. That afternoon Gina Lollobrigida made a courtesy call in my Capitol office and presented me with two beautiful Italian walking dolls for my daughters, Tricia and Julie. That night I told them about the dolls and the little girl in the hospital. They initially wanted to keep the dolls, but then they urged me to give them to her.

The next day at the National Health Institute, I had one of the most rewarding conversations of my life with the little girl and her room-mate, who was also suffering from leukemia. I had gone there to cheer them up. Instead, their liveliness and irrepressible spirit cheered me up.

A few months later, I learned that the little girl had died while holding the Italian doll in her arms.

What progress has been made in the 15 years since the national cancer initiative?

* The federal budget for cancer programs has increased from $230 million in 1971 to $1.25 billion last year.

* Contributions to the American Cancer Society have increased from $70 million in 1971 to $240 million last year.

* The number of medical oncologists (cancer specialists) has increased from 100 in 1970 to more than 2,800 in 1980.

* The United States had only 3 comprehensive cancer centers in 1971; today it has more than 20.

But what are the results of all of this additional money and effort? First, the bad news: We have learned that, unlike polio or tuberculosis, there is no single cure for cancer. There are many different kinds of cancer; it is a hydra-headed monster. The death rate from cancer is still increasing: 472,000 people will die from cancer this year--an increase of 10,000 from last year.

And now for the good news: Although there is no single cure for cancer, cures have been found for some types of cancer. In 1971, there were cures for only 2 types of cancer in cases where the cancer had spread from the point of origin. Today, there are cures for 12 of these types of cancer. Although the death rate from cancer has increased moderately, the survival rate of those diagnosed and treated has increased dramatically.

Most striking, the survival rate for children with cancer has increased from 10 percent in 1970 to more than 50 percent in 1985. Among all cancer patients in 1970, only 40 percent could hope to survive for five years or more after treatment. Today, more than 50 percent will survive. Here are some examples comparing 1970 and 1983: The survival rate for colon cancer has increased from 49 to 53 percent, leukemia from 22 to 40 percent, breast cancer from 68 to 75 percent, prostate cancer from 63 to 72 percent, and Hodgkin's disease from 67 to 73 percent.

But statistics are too cold and impersonal to make the point. Let me put it in personal terms: Two years ago I was deeply interested to learn that my brother Don, who is two years younger than I, had a very severe case of Hodgkin's disease. He has had a very rough time during the past two years, going through chemotherapy and other treatment. I saw him when I was in California recently. He looked thin and weak, but his spirit was strong. He told me his doctor said if Don had received only the treatment available 15 years ago, he probably would not be alive today.

One of the greatest advances of the past 15 years has been the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. I recall a meeting of the National Security Council early in 1953. Seated at Eisenhower's right was Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force Chief of Staff, one of the most handsome men in the service and a legendary World War II hero. A great future lay before him. I noticed that he looked thin and drawn as he briefed the President and members of the Security Council on our Air Force capabilities. A few months after that meeting, he died of cancer of the prostate.

Gen. Jerry Persons, Eisenhower's military aide and one of Vandenberg's closest friends, was deeply shocked, because he felt that the death was unnecessary. Vandenberg had not found the time during his wartime service for the routine annual physicals that would have disclosed the problem. He could have been cured by a simple operation.

Just before Christmas last year, my former secretary, Rose Mary Woods, was not feeling well. Her doctor insisted on a complete physical. When he diagnosed lung cancer, she was shocked--she had never smoked in her life. She has had a difficult time since her operation, but the prognosis is good. Had the doctor not insisted on the examination and operation, she might not be alive today.

Finally, there have been some encouraging developments in basic research. Scientists have long believed that cancer is caused by damage to certain genes. Since the passage of the National Cancer Act, investigators at several laboratories across the United States have identified for the first time what are called oncogenes. They have begun to learn how genes are damaged by certain chemicals and how cancer genes are activated. They have not yet found a cure, but the first step is to find the cause, and in that they have made significant progress.

We had high hopes, when we launched this initiative 15 years ago, that we would find a complete cure for cancer. We have been disappointed, but we have made significant progress in prevention and treatment. More than 4 million Americans destined to get cancer will be cured because of the new technology developed under the National Cancer Act of 1971. The day is near when basic cancer research will achieve a dramatic breakthrough.

When I visited China in 1972, Marshall Ye, a revered 80-year-old Chinese leader who had accompanied Mao and Chou En-lai on the Long March, escorted me to the Great Wall. In the two hours we were in the car together, his primary interest was not in the new U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship, but in the progress we were making in cancer research. He observed that the Chinese smoked too much and that lung cancer was sharply increasing. I told him I hoped one of the results of our new relationship would be a program of cooperation between Chinese and American doctors and scientists in cancer and other medical research.

Four years later when I visited China again, I discovered a possible reason for his interest. Premier Chou En-lai, my host, was too ill to see me. He died of cancer a few weeks later.

Today the United States has political differences with several nations. Our differences with the Soviet Union are particularly great. Some will never be settled, because our interests and theirs are diametrically opposed. But we have one common interest that should override all political differences: The United States and the Soviet Union should be allies in the war against disease and particularly against cancer, in which Soviet death rates are sharply increasing.

I believe Amferican scientists and doctors are the best in the world. We win more Nobel prizes than any other country. But we have no monopoly on wisdom. Great medical discoveries are not limited by national boundaries. They should never be limited by national differences. We are waging the war against cancer, not just for ourselves, but for all mankind.

Thirteen years from now we will be celebrating the beginning of a new century and the beginning of a new millennium, a day that comes only once in a thousand years. The 20th century has been the bloodiest century in history. One hundred forty million people have been killed in wars, more than all the people killed in wars in recorded history.

There have been some great positive developments as well in the 20th century. We have seen the automobile replace the horse. We have learned to fly. We have gone to the moon. We have split the atom. We have developed radio, motion pictures, and television. We have ushered in the age of computers. On the health front, we have found cures for polio, tuberculosis, and other dread diseases.

Before this century ends, the conquest of cancer could be our greatest victory.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Nixon, Richard M.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1986
Words:2057
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