Nancy Brinker, Eric Rosenthal: The unsung hero who boosted cancer awareness when it was unmentionable

October may be Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but just a few decades earlier, the word “cancer” was unmentionable in polite society. Those affected by the disease were largely shunned and avoided.

Cancer was highly stigmatized until the last quarter of the 20th century, when courageous women such as Betty Rollin, Betty Ford, Happy Rockefeller, Nancy Reagan and others first shared their respective breast cancer diagnoses and treatments with the world.

But their contributions to raising awareness about breast cancer were largely predated by the considerable efforts of the pioneering health advocate, Mary Lasker — wife of advertising magnate Albert Lasker — who as a philanthropist and private citizen helped parlay the nonpartisan public-private partnership that resulted in President Richard Nixon’s signing of the 1971 National Cancer Act (NCA).

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The Act created the National Cancer Program that launched the United States’ “war on cancer,” and Mary Lasker was instrumental in securing government research funding for cancer, heart disease, and other major diseases, as well as helping to persuade Congress to increase appropriations for the National Institutes of Health and disease-specific research centers.

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Lasker used her considerable wealth, charm and connections to further public health, as well as urban beautification, mostly in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

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She was responsible for restructuring and reinvigorating the American Cancer Society in the 1940s and establishing with her husband the Lasker Foundation, which has awarded contributions to medical science for more than 70 years and is considered to be the second highest honor in medicine after the Nobel Prize.

Jonas Salk is credited as saying that Lasker was a "matchmaker between science and society," and Lasker herself had often said: "If you think research is expensive, try disease!"

She was a tireless advocate for medical research, frequently traveling to Capitol Hill as a volunteer lobbyist, and was a critical force in raising public awareness and federal funding for cancer.

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Lasker also served as a role model to many of us who have spent many years involved in the cancer community, and now as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the National Cancer Act in 2021, we should acknowledge her contributions to helping take cancer out of the closet and actually doing something about reducing its pain and suffering for all society.

Perhaps it is time to consider instituting a Mary Lasker Awareness Month.

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