************** THIS IS A RUSH, UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT ******************
BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone, this week with the second of two shows exploring the nature of cancer. Stay with me. Last week we traced how we’ve viewed cancer through time, how we’ve framed it, the words and symbols we’ve applied to it. But this week we move from the framing of cancer, to the selling, and owning, of cancer. I’m joined again by Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of Cancer. And we begin in 1938 ---still a long way from understanding what causes cancer, but on the verge of discovering how to make it a cause. Because the template is being set by another deadly illness, a scourge….once hidden away, now wrapped in celebrity, and the flag.
Eddie Cantor was the celebrity behind the March of dimes campaign to end polio, and the flag was held by none other than FDR.
FDR: I wish to express heartfelt thanks to all of you who have contributed your dimes and your dollars to further the fight against a cruel disease.
BROOKE: Cancer wasn't gonna compete with that.
MUKHERJEE: But it could learn from it. It's a very significant moment in American history, II think. The camera focused on FDR's upper torso during his first campaign, moves back 2 feet and now shows his lower torso. And FDR himself he says, look, you know, I might be paralyzed but I will still walk you out of the Depression.
The March of DImes and FDR really transformed the treatment and understanding of polio. The virus was identified, grown in the laboratory, and the first vaccine created: so it was a success story beyond a success stories. And the culmination of the media and political will lead by the president and the march of dimes, had really dime by dime by dime by dime transformed a previously illness into a vaccinable disease.
BROOKE: So, cancer needed a poster child, they found one in an actual child, the story involves a physician, Sidney Farber, and a group called the Variety Club.
MUKHERJEE: Sidney Farber was a pathologist: he was working on children's diseases in the basement of this hospital in Boston. No one knew what caused cancer but they knew that ultimately it was the growth of cells. And Farber and others in the 1940s began to wonder well if there's a chemical that could block the growth of these cells. Could that chemical be used to cure cancer. They were convinced in fact that such chemicals would cure cancer. And Farber had taken one such chemical from an Indian born chemist and injected it into children with a very lethal, rapidly progressing form of Leukemia called ALL. And obtained flickering but very clear remissions. Children would still relapse and die, but this is one of the first time that you could put cancer on the defensive by using chemicals.
BROOKE: And Sidney was transformed, he became a chemotherapy activist.
MUKHERJEE: And then from a chemotherapy activist, turned into a cancer activist. But Farber knew from the march of Dimes campaign he needed a mascot. A child who would at least live long enough who wouldn't become extinguished in the imagination. And he found a perfect candidate. He found a young boy with lymphoma who probably was in a profound long remission. He loved baseball. Everything was perfect about this kid except his name; his name was Einer Gustavsen, which even Farber could barely pronounce. So Farber partly to keep his anonymity, but partly to make him the mascot, said well we'll call you Jimmy. And so Jimmy became the Jimmy Fund.
BROOKE: Now, was this his idea or was this the idea of the Variety Club?
MUKHERJEE: The Variety Club was movie producers and movie makers, movie sellers. They also knew how important a mascot can be in the media. In fact the Variety Club had had its own mascot, a young woman they had adopted and raised in the past.
BROOKE: The proverbial orphan, literally left on the doorstep of the Variety Club. They gave her the middle name variety, they educated her. And then they started looking for another child oriented cause, right? So they found Sidney.
MUKHERJEE: They were looking around for the right kind of person who could bring cancer advocacy to the forefront. And they found SIdney Farber sitting in his basement. I call him a Messiah in a box.
BROOKE: This Jimmy Fund was launched with a broadcast.
MUKHERJEE: Jimmy was a huge fan of baseball. And they knew that if they could get baseball involved it would be a home run for cancer as it were. So --
BROOKE: Shame on you.
MUKHERJEE: They arranged for Jimmy to go on a big radio show, the Ralph Edwards show.
EDWARDS: Now by the magic of radio we're going to span the breadth of the United STates and take you right up to the bedside of jimmy in one of the great cities of Boston Massachusetts.
EDWARDS: Hi Jimmy this Ralph Edwards of the Truth and Consequences radio program. I heard you like baseball, is that right?
JIMMY: Yes, it's my favorite sport.
EDWARDS: It's your favorite sport! Who do you think is going to win the pennant this year?
JIMMY: The Boston Braves I hope.
EDWARDS: Who's the catcher?
JIMMY: Bill Macy.
EDWARDS: Have you ever met Bill Macy?
MACY: Hi Jimmy. My name's Bill Macy.
EDWARDS: So who's that Jimmy?
JIMMY: Bill Macy!
EDWARDS: And where is he?
JIMMY: In my room!
EDWARDS: Well what do you know! Right there in your hospital room! Yeah, that's Bill Macy.
MUKHERJEE: And that's how the Jimmy Fund got launched and it was spectacularly successful over the course of a few months they raise billions of dollars which they poured into cancer advocacy and cancer research. People still remember these sort of tin cans, with Jimmy Fund being passed around and putting in dimes nickels, mailing letters to Jimmy in the hospital saying "jimmy get well, here's a one dollar bill."
BROOKE: But it just wasn't enough money, because even though he got to build the Jimmy clinic, he still wasn't any closer to a cure. So he hooked up with Mary Lasker.
MUKHERJEE: Mary Lasker's an amazing figure. She had a very personal story to tell: her own husband, Albert Lasker, really invented modern advertising.
BROOKE: Can you remember an ad that he did?
MUKHERJEE: Well, Lucky Strikes, ironically, cigarettes. Albert Lasker knew that advertising was the key to imagination. Television was now coming to the full force. But unfortunately in the 1950s Albert died himself of colon cancer. So Mary really threw herself into cancer advocacy.
Mrs. Albert D Lasker is a woman of many and varied interests. Flowers and philanthropy. Cancer research, and community welfare. Uh, Mary, are you happy with what is being done in the whole area of financing medical research in this country?
Oh I'm not a bit happy about it. The amount of money that's available for research is totally inadequate in the United States. You won't believe this: we spend less on cancer research than we spend on chewing gum!
MUKHERJEE: And she was looking for a scientific partner who would join her on the national stage to plead for an all out effort on cancer. And she found Sidney Farber.
BROOKE: Tell me how the war on cancer came to be.
MUKHERJEE: It was a coinage that Lasker and Farber really toyed around with in their early conversations. Declare war on something: you could really get the public moving.
Members of the senate, members of the house, ladies and gentleman. We're here today for the purpose of signing the Cancer Act of 1971. And I hope that in the years ahead, that we may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during this administration.
MUKHERJEE: The disjunction between hope and hype was particularly acute. The war on cancer had promised things would be solved in 10 years time, so that that disjunction really drove the research. As 5 years rolled around again, let me paint you a picture. We don't' know what causes cancer. It can arise from viruses it can arise from environmental factors, it can arise in families through heredity. But no one knows the real cause. And the war on cancer is launched without fully understanding the basic cause of cancer. Occasional chemotherapy, occasional poisons, really, have been shown to be successful in certain cancers, but we don't know very much beyond that.
BROOKE: So you start creating a bunch of chemicals and throwing them into patients to see which ones work.
MUKHERJEE: Three years go by and the media's asking, wait a second, what is happening here? Where's the promised cures?
BROOKE: Coming up: how cancer sells tickets and popcorn, and what the movies can teach us about it.
REBECCA: This is Rebecca in Rutherford New Jersey. I've just finished treatment for stage .3 breast cancer. I actually think that Hollywood's portrayals of cancer and cancer treatment are the only references i had for what it would be like. I can think about all those scenes where women are wearing scarves on their heads, even commercials on television. And wondered, am i like them now? which is weird, because in reality, it's a lot more difficult than you think it's going to be.