This year marks the 110th anniversary of the founding of the American Cancer Society, an organization whose work has led to more people surviving cancer than ever before. The dedication of the men and women behind the American Cancer Society has helped the United States reach a 33 percent decline in the cancer death rate since 1991.
ACS is the only organization working to improve the lives of people with cancer and their families through advocacy, research, and patient support, to ensure everyone has an opportunity to prevent, detect, treat, and survive cancer.
To celebrate the 110-year milestone, we will take a look back at the beginnings of the American Cancer Society. Over the course of more than a century, the organization has evolved alongside the world around it and served as a leader in the fight against cancer.
The beginning of the American Cancer Society
The year was 1913. At that time, a cancer diagnosis meant near-certain death for patients, and the word “cancer” was often met with fear or denial.
That reality is what prompted the creation of a group that would draft a plan for a comprehensive cancer education program. A group of advocates, 10 doctors and five laypeople, held an organizational meeting in May 1913 at the Harvard Club in New York City. That meeting launched the creation of the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC), the organization that would one day become the American Cancer Society.
In an effort to raise public awareness and de-mystify information surrounding cancer, the group began writing a string of articles for popular magazines and professional journals, including the organization’s first article on cancer published in the popular women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal. The group also published Campaign Notes, a monthly bulletin of cancer information, and recruited doctors across the country in an effort to help educate the public.
It was during those early years the leaders of ASCC recognized the need for a symbol to represent their cause. In 1928, a nationwide poster contest sponsored by the ASCC and the New York City Cancer Committee was underway. Brooklyn resident George E. Durant submitted The Sword of Hope, a visual used 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 society’s work. Classically, twined serpents represent healing of the sick and creativity of the healthy.
Just as the world transformed over the ensuing years, so did the American Cancer Society’s flagship symbol. Years later, the logo was redesigned with a trapezoidal shape with an angled edge to suggest forward movement, aspiration, and growth. In 2022, the organization recognized a need for another evolution – unveiling a new, refreshed logo that remains the symbol of hope the organization’s founders envisioned more than a century ago.
The Women’s Field Army
From the early days of the ASCC, women played a pivotal role and worked diligently to educate other women about cancer, hosting everything from public education gatherings to fundraising.
In 1936, Marjorie G. Illig, an ASCC field representative and chair of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Committee on Public Health, worked to create an army of these female volunteers. Soon, she and 1,500 passionate women established The Women’s Field Army (WFA). The grassroots power of this group would prove tremendous. Touting the same slogan as the ASCC, “Fight Cancer with Knowledge,” the WFA had 700,000 dues-paying members at its peak.
The WFA developed programs to assist cancer patients, arranged transportation for doctor’s visits, raised money for cancer care equipment and shared information at cancer clinics and information centers.
The success of the Women’s Field Army clearly showed the power of women as a strong volunteer and educational force. Over the course of the American Cancer Society’s history, women volunteers and staff have been its lifeblood to grow, prosper and spread across the nation.
Enhancing the society
By the 1940s, it became apparent to some that to be successful, ASCC would need a fundamental shift in the composition of its board and its mission.
As World War II raged, cancer also wreaked havoc on the nation. It was estimated that one in six deaths in America in 1943 was due to cancer.
Enter Mary Lasker, a charming, intelligent, philanthropic social butterfly. Along with her husband, Albert, the Laskers used their considerable wealth and influence to raise funds for medical research. That focus shifted to cancer when one of the Laskers’ household employees was diagnosed with cancer and told there was no hope for curing the terminal disease.
For Mary, this was unacceptable, and she was not one to sit idly by. She quickly leaped to action, consulting with several high-level cancer experts, and raised the idea of shifting the American Cancer Society’s focus to research.
This suggestion led to a reorganization of the ASCC in 1945, with a new organization called the American Cancer Society. By the end of that year, the newly formed American Cancer Society had raised more than $4 million, one million of which was immediately allocated to research. In 1946, the American Cancer Society would raise two and half times more than it did the previous year.
Between 1946 and 1952, the American Cancer Society awarded more than 1,400 research grants totaling $12.2 million, $10.3 million in institutional grants and $2 million in fellowship scholastic grants. In 1947, the first successful chemotherapy treatment for cancer was discovered by ACS-funded researcher Sidney Farber, MD.
For more than 70 years, research supported by ACS has played a pivotal role in numerous groundbreaking advancements in cancer research. Since its inception in 1946, ACS has allocated over $5 billion towards research endeavors. These achievements encompass a wide range of significant contributions, including a 1954 American Cancer Society study that confirmed the link between smoking and lung cancer, validating the effectiveness of the Pap test, developing vital cancer-fighting medications and biological response modifiers like interferon, significantly improving the cure rate for childhood leukemia, and validating the safety and efficacy of mammography.
“The survival rates for cancer have been transformed from something that was a death sentence into something survivable and treatable,” said Donna Gulotta, vice president of marketing and communications at ACS, who has been part of the organization for 37 years.
ACS’s funding has been instrumental in supporting 50 researchers who not only embarked on their scientific journeys but also went on to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize.
“We’ve really seen the entire society change, and a lot of that was based in the American Cancer Society’s research,” Gulotta said.
Supporting cancer patients and their families
A cancer diagnosis is a burden that requires care and attention outside of a medical team.
This is something Terese Lasser knew firsthand. In 1952, Lasser found a lump in her breast, one that would require a mastectomy. Following her surgery, Lasser was disheartened to learn that her medical team had no resources for a breast prostheses or rehabilitation. Lasser was determined to help women in similar situations address their needs, and she soon formed Reach To Recovery, a movement to connect women facing a breast cancer diagnosis with others who have lived through it.
Her idea was a success, and in 1969, the American Cancer Society expanded the Reach To Recovery program throughout the United States.
Along with emotional support, many cancer patients face financial burdens when navigating their diagnosis and treatment. In 1970, the first American Cancer Society Hope Lodge facility was opened in Charleston, South Carolina. These free residential facilities for individuals undergoing cancer treatment were the dream of volunteer and Holocaust survivor Margot Freudenberg.
“To see the network expanding across the country to provide support to cancer patients during their treatment is more than I ever imagined would happen,” Freudenberg said in 2007, when celebrating her 100th birthday.
Freudenberg’s vision has continued to blossom, and since its inception, over 6 million nights of free lodging have been provided via Hope Lodges. These homes-away-from-homes have eased the burden of more than 29,000 cancer patients and caregivers who must travel for treatment in a typical year.
Another crucial need for cancer patients? Information.
In 1997, the American Cancer Society launched the first 24/7 cancer information call center. Cancer information specialists begin serving patients and their families 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Today, ACS provides free information and resources to over 250,000 people via phone and live chat every year.
A focus on health equity
Cancer is a disease that can affect anyone, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Over the years, the American Cancer Society has recognized that health equity means everyone has a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” said Kimberly Williams, senior program manager for tobacco control for the American Cancer Society. “Our organization is very good at incorporating all communities, all people, all races, all ethnic groups, everyone.”
ACS recognizes the importance of addressing disparities in cancer outcomes among different communities, including racial and ethnic minorities, low-income populations, and underserved individuals, and has implemented initiatives aimed at reducing disparities and improving access to care like cancer screenings, education, and support services. Earlier this year, ACS launched IMPACT, an initiative to reduce the prostate cancer disparity gap in Black men over the next 10 years and improve mortality for all.
Equitable access for cancer patients also includes transportation. Every day, thousands of cancer patients need a ride to treatment, but some may not have a way to get there.
In 1981, the American Cancer Society launched Road To Recovery®, a program that provides transportation to and from treatment for people with cancer who do not have a ride or are unable to drive themselves.
More than 9.5 million free rides to treatment and related appointments have been provided through our Road To Recovery® and other transportation programs since 2005.
Equity is also a key focus outside the patients ACS seeks to assist. ACS launched the groundbreaking Diversity in Cancer Research program, which aims to increase diversity and inclusion in the cancer workforce by providing training and support to students who are currently underrepresented in the health science field because of race, ethnicity, gender identity, ability, or low socioeconomic status.
Rallying communities across the globe
Gary Cornelius had been involved in his community’s Relay For Life in Cullman, Alabama for nearly a decade. He felt like it was the right thing to do, he said. But the event became even more personal for him in 2002 when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“My daughter was 7, and she was on my shoulders; it was my first survivor lap,” he said. “When I got around the track, I was engulfed by my teammates who had a passion for me and my family beating cancer. The love and support was overwhelming.
Cornelius is just one of the millions whose life has been touched by Relay For Life, an event that brings people together to celebrate cancer survivors, honor those who have lost their lives to cancer, and raise funds for cancer research, education, and support.
The vision of Tacoma, Washington resident and colorectal surgeon Dr. Gordy Klatt, Relay For Life began as a 24-hour run and fundraiser to help support the American Cancer Society’s mission. Since 1985, Relay For Life has raised $6.8 billion and today, events are held worldwide across 31 countries.
Another community-building event, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, has become the nation’s largest and most impactful movement to end breast cancer, raising approximately $1 billion to support breast cancer research, patient programs, and direct services since 1984.
ACS has long been involved in more than just cancer research and support – but cancer advocacy.
Going back more than 50 years, the American Cancer Society played a leading role in the passage of the National Cancer Act. This is considered the most significant piece of health legislation ever enacted, increasing federal funding for cancer research from $4.3 million in 1953 to an estimated $6.9 billion in 2022.
In 2001, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) was founded and has since made cancer a top priority for policymakers at every level of government and had a measurable impact in reducing cancer’s toll on individuals and families nationwide.
For more than two decades, ACS CAN has empowered volunteers nationwide to make their voices heard to influence evidence-based public policy change that saves lives. ACS CAN also led the cancer community to secure more than $7 billion for cancer research at the National Cancer Institute, including a $408 million increase as part of a $2.5 billion increase for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health to help lead to innovative future therapies.
The road ahead
In 2021, Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., was announced as the next chief executive officer of ACS and ACS CAN. As the first female CEO and the first scientific and oncology researcher, this marked a new era for the American Cancer Society.
“I’ve experienced firsthand how the American Cancer Society improves the lives of cancer patients and their families through discovery, advocacy, and direct patient support,” Knudsen said when she stepped into the role of CEO. “I share the Board of Directors’ vision to ensure that ACS’s impact benefits all people throughout the nation. With creativity, innovation, and novel partnerships, we will accelerate the mission and save lives.”
Under Dr. Knudsen’s leadership, the American Cancer Society recognizes that cancer is a complex problem that will take a comprehensive approach to make progress. To that end, the American Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network are leading partners in the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative, a collaborative effort calling for at least 50% reduction in cancer mortality over the next 25 years. ACS and ACS CAN are also working to expand access to biomarker testing to ensure equitable access to advances in precision medicine.
Meanwhile, the impact investment and venture capital arm of ACS, BrightEdge, is investing in for-profit, early-stage companies developing cutting-edge, cancer-focused therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, and technologies to fuel and accelerate ACS’s mission.
Additionally, the American Cancer Society is partnering with Color Health to provide convenient, accessible, and comprehensive cancer prevention and screening solutions for the highest-burden cancers including breast, prostate, lung, cervical, and colorectal for more than 150 million Americans who receive health care through either their employer or union.
While the American Cancer Society has made significant contributions to improving the lives of cancer patients and their families over the past 110 years, there is still work to be done. The American Cancer Society will continue to work tirelessly to reach its vision of ending cancer as we know it, for everyone.