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ACS History

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.

Uniform

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.

Ike

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 were:

  • 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.

ResearchAround 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).

NurseAnother 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.

Revised: 10/2/2006
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