President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law on December 23, 1971. In the 50 years since then, researchers have made tremendous strides in understanding, preventing, and treating cancer, but much remains to be done—requiring greater investment in the NCI and the Cancer Moonshot.

Year-long commemoration of sweeping legislation that spurred improvements in cancer care begins.

One could call it the original Cancer Moonshot: In 1971, just 2 years after men walked on the moon, Congress passed the National Cancer Act, sweeping legislation that set the course for steady scientific progress in prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

The act gave the NCI special status, with its own budget procedures and presidentially appointed director and oversight panels. It birthed the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, dedicated to basic research and technology development. And it brought about the Cancer Centers Program, a cornerstone of the NCI's translational science efforts.

The legislation also established an international cancer research data bank—known today as the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results program—and helped to destigmatize cancer among the American public.

With the National Cancer Act turning 50 this year, “we really hope and expect that the entire cancer research community will embrace this anniversary and want to talk about it,” says Norman Sharpless, MD, the NCI's director.

Working with partners in academia, industry, and philanthropy, the institute is planning social media campaigns throughout the year to tell the stories of pioneers who made seminal contributions in the cancer world. On Instagram and elsewhere, the campaigns will feature notable figures, such as the inventors of the human papillomavirus vaccine and the patient advocates who fought for passage of the National Cancer Act. The NCI is even rolling out a slogan for the outreach effort: Nothing will stop us.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential transition, the institute has no major activities planned to celebrate the semicentennial this winter. However, virtual events may be held in conjunction with the spring conferences of the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. When the coronavirus is under control, additional activities may lead up to December 23, the day President Richard Nixon signed the act in 1971.

“It is an important event to commemorate,” says Sharpless. “It's an opportunity to talk about cancer progress today and where we can make more progress going forward.” –Elie Dolgin

For more news on cancer research, visit Cancer Discovery online at