The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913 as the
American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) by 15 prominent
physicians and business leaders in New York City. It was one of the
most remarkable moments in the history of public health.
In those early days, cancer was rarely mentioned in public.
The disease was steeped in a climate of fear and denial. Cancer claimed
75,000 lives a year in the United States alone. The Society's founders
knew they had to raise public awareness if progress was to be made. The
number of doctors, nurses, patients and family members who had to be
reached was overwhelming. Despite the enormity of their task, the
founders and their colleagues set about writing articles for popular
magazines and professional journals, publishing Campaign Notes (a
monthly bulletin of cancer information), and recruiting physicians
throughout the country to help educate the public.
In 1936, Marjorie G. Illig, an ASCC field representative and
chair of the General Federation of Women's Clubs Committee on Public
Health, made an extraordinary suggestion. She proposed creating a
legion of new volunteers whose sole purpose was to wage war on cancer.
The Women's Field Army, as this organization came to be called, was an
enormous success. Its recruits donned khaki uniforms, complete with
insignia of rank and achievement, and canvassed the streets to raise
money and help educate the public. Clarence Little, the ASCC's managing
director at the time, wrote that "In 1935 there were 15,000 people
active in cancer control throughout the United States. At the close of
1938, there were ten times that number." More than anything else, it
was the Women's Field Army that moved the Society to the forefront of
voluntary health organizations.
In 1945, the ASCC was reorganized as the American Cancer
Society. It was the beginning of a new era for the organization and, in
many ways, for the country as a whole. World War II was over, the
single greatest threat to modern democracy had been defeated, and the
nation could at last focus on the enemy at home. Many believed it was
time for another bold move. In 1946, Mary Lasker and her colleagues met
this challenge by raising more than $4 million for the Society - $1
million of which was used to establish the Society's research program.
With the help of dedicated volunteers like Lasker and Elmer Bobst, the
Society's research program quickly began to bear fruit.
In 1947, the American Cancer Society also began its public
education campaign about the signs and symptoms of cancer. They were
termed "Cancer's Danger Signals." The original seven danger signals
- Any sore that does not heal
- A lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Any change in wart or mole
- Persistent indigestion or difficult swallowing
- Persistent hoarseness or cough
- Any change in normal bowel habits
Ten years later, the order was rearranged so the "unusual
bleeding or discharge" symptom came first. The signals were retitled
and reworded slightly through the years, until the wording was changed
in 1969 to the acronym CAUTION. The first letter of each sentence was
lined up to spell CAUTION.
Change in bowel or bladder habits
A sore that does not heal
Unusual bleeding or discharge
Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere
Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
Obvious change in wart or mole
Nagging cough or hoarseness
The warning signals remained as above until they were
discontinued in the early 1980s.
the same time the cancer signals campaign began, Dr. Sidney Farber, one
of the Society's first research grantees, achieved the first temporary
cancer remission using the drug aminopterin, thus beginning the modern
day era of chemotherapy for cancer treatment. Over the years,
scientists supported by the American Cancer Society have established
the link between cancer and smoking; demonstrated the effectiveness of
the Pap smear; developed cancer fighting drugs and biological response
modifiers such as interferon; dramatically increased the cure rate for
childhood leukemia; proved the safety and effectiveness of mammography;
and much, much more. All told, the Society has committed about $3
billion to research, funding 40 Nobel Prize winners - often early in
their careers before they had received recognition and monetary support
for their work (for a listing of accomplishments, refer to the American
Cancer Society Accomplishments 1946 - 2003).
historical point of interest is the use of the sword as a symbol for
the American Cancer Society. The sword had its origin in a nationwide
poster contest in 1928 sponsored by the national society, then called
American Society for the Control of Cancer, and the local division, the
New York City Cancer Committee. George E. Durant of Brooklyn won the
contest, receiving a first prize of $500. He explained that he selected
the sword to express the crusading spirit of the cancer control
movement. The twin-serpent caduceus, which forms the handle of the
sword emphasizes the medical and scientific nature of the Society's
program. Classically, twined serpents represent healing of the sick and
creativity of the healthy. Since 1928, the American Cancer Society has
used the sword as its symbol as it continues to champion the causes of
cancer prevention, eliminating suffering from cancer, and saving lives.