More On John Bailar

Many of us were pleased to see more recognition of the impact of recently deceased Collingtonian John Bailar.

Under the heading Defeating cancer was once a ‘war’; now it’s a ‘moonshot’, in a Q and A piece, the Washington Post discussed Johns’s role in changing our view of how to deal with cancer:

Was the medical establishment starting to question the way breast cancer was handled?

Yes. In 1975, John Bailar, a biostatistician and head of demography at the National Cancer Institute, wrote an article titled “Mammography: A Contrary View,” which was highly critical of a mammography screening program being sponsored by his own agency, the NCI, along with the ACS.

He argued that the value of mammography had not been shown, especially for women under 50, and the risks of radiation “may be greater than commonly understood.” In other words, earlier was not necessarily better.

Bailar eventually co-authored two important pieces for the New England Journal of Medicine, one in 1986 titled “Progress against Cancer?” and another in 1997 called “Cancer Undefeated.” He argued that a quarter-century after Nixon declared war on cancer, the United States was losing badly and that mortality rates had not budged. Bailar also believed that cancer prevention, a much more promising approach, had been ignored.

The article concludes:

But at least Biden is acknowledging the limits of the moonshot, such as the notion that certain therapies might be used to control — as opposed to cure — cancer.

After Nixon signed the War on Cancer legislation, one cancer specialist at the time was so excited that he predicted that cancer would be wiped out by the 1976 American Bicentennial. Well, not exactly. This story reminds us to be modest about what we can hope to achieve in the next 10 to 20 years.