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50 Years of Milestones in the Fight Against Cancer

Today people can live for years with some forms of cancer; other forms of cancer can be cured.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For every milestone in cancer research, there are countless men and women to thank. Through their creativity and dogged determination, people have hope in preventing, living with, even curing some forms of cancer.

Here are just a few of the milestones in the war on cancer, and some of the researchers who made them:

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Study shows first link between smoking and lung cancer.

Researcher finds that the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen drive the growth of prostate and breast cancers, respectively. Research receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1966. Learn more about the causes of

Scientist develops
5-fluorouracil (5-FU), a chemotherapy drug used to treat many cancers. It is a first-line treatment for colon cancer.

Scientist discovers growth factors; substances that can help tumors grow. Research wins Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Cancer Prevention Study I begins. Study will eventually be the first to link cigarette smoking to early death from lung cancer.

American Cancer Society advocates widespread use of the
Pap smear. This simple test results in more than a 70% decrease in deaths from cervical and uterine cancers.


Judah Folkman, MD, of Harvard University discovers that tumors create a network of blood vessels to bring them oxygen so they can grow. He calls this process angiogenesis.

Henry Lynch, MD, describes the first
hereditary cancer family syndrome.

Surgeon General announces that cigarette smoking is definitely linked to cancer.

The first cancer-causing gene, or oncogene, is discovered.

Also during the '70s:
A handful of forward-thinking surgeons say that
simple mastectomy-- removal of only the breast itself -- is just as effective as a radical mastectomy.

Surgeons begin studying lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy as an alternative to radical mastectomy.

Among those visionary breast cancer researchers: Bernard Fisher, MD, director of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, and Umberto Veronesi, MD, researcher with the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy. Both launched long-term studies of these techniques.

President Richard Nixon declares a national war on cancer. The National Cancer Act is signed by President Nixon, establishing a national program to search for a cancer cure.

Scientist pioneers the technique of bone marrow transplantation to treat cancer. Researchers receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990.

Paul Berg, PhD, clones the first gene. He receives Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980.

Scientist V. Craig Jordan, PhD, shows that the drug tamoxifen prevents breast cancer in rats by binding to the estrogen receptor. Learn more about

Researchers develop technology that leads to the development of a monoclonal antibody that can enhance the immune system. This research leads to the development of several promising cancer drugs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The researchers receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1984.

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