top of page

The War on Cancer at 50: The Origin Story Begins With a Socialite Citizen-Lobbyist

The roots of the National Cancer Act can be traced to a small home in Watertown, Wisconsin. In the early 1900s, a girl named Mary tagged along when her mother went to visit their laundress, Mrs. Belter, who had breast cancer.

When they arrived, the woman was in bed, her seven children around her. She was terribly sick. That day, Mary was only around 4 years old, but she remembered it for the rest of her life.

“When I stood in the room and saw this miserable sight, with her children crowding around her, I was absolutely infuriated, indignant that this woman should suffer so and that there should be no help for her,” she recalled decades later, in 1962.

That girl grew up to be Mary Lasker, who transformed her outrage into action. Lasker became an activist, philanthropist and strategist focused on supporting medical research.

Belter, who’d had her breasts removed, survived.

“I’ll never forget my anger at hearing about this disease that caused such suffering and mutilation and my thinking that something should be done about this,” Lasker recounted.

In the first half of the 20th century, cancer was misunderstood. It was widely considered a death sentence, and some people believed it was contagious and something to be ashamed of.