When US President Richard M. Nixon declared war on cancer in his 1971 state of the union address, his inspiration was the idea that millions of dollars thrown into the development of new and better chemotherapies would mean an end to the ancient scourge. It did not take long for even the most hawkish advocates of heavy investment in chemotherapeutic drug development to admit that victory was far in the future.

John Cairns, a microbiologist now retired from the Harvard School of Public Health, was a leading early critic of the Nixon war on cancer, which he said put too much hope into treatment, and too little study into epidemiology. Still, some successes in treatment and early detection may have helped drive the breast cancer death rate down, he now thinks, but even doing the math, cancer by cancer, does not provide all the answers. "Stomach cancer has disappeared for...

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