The American Cancer Society — one of the nation's best known and influential health advocacy groups — is 100 years old this week. Its birthday comes at a time when the rate of new cancer cases has been trending downward slightly. Still, cancer remains one of the nation's top killers, second only to heart disease.
Back in 1913 when it was formed, the biggest killers were flu, pneumonia, tuberculosis and stomach bugs. At a time when average life expectancy was 47, few lived long enough to get cancer.
But 15 doctors and businessmen in New York City thought cancer deserved serious attention, so they founded the American Society for the Control of Cancer. The modern name would come 31 years later.
The Cancer Society's rise coincided with the taming of infectious diseases and lengthening life spans. "Cancer is a disease of aging, so as people live longer there will be more cancer," explained Dr. Michael Kastan, executive director of Duke University's Cancer Institute.
Cancer became the nation's No. 2 killer in 1938, a ranking it has held ever since. It also became perhaps the most feared disease — the patient's own cells growing out of control, responding only to brutal treatments: surgery, radiation and poisonous chemicals.
The Cancer Society is credited with being the largest and most visible proponent of research funding, prevention and programs to help house and educate cancer patients.
Last year, the organization had revenues of about $925 million. It employs 6,000 and has 3 million volunteers, calling itself the largest voluntary health organization in the nation.
"The American Cancer Society really is in a league of its own," Kastan said.