Today, we are fortunate in that public awareness of the dangers of cancer has likely never been higher. Pink ribbons supporting breast cancer research dot car bumpers around the country. Self-exams for several types of cancer are regularly encouraged by doctors, and there are resources online for those who want to learn more on their own. Organizations like Angel Foundation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Gilda’s Club, the American Cancer Society, and many others all work to mitigate the devastating effects that cancer has on families and to encourage research towards an eventual cure. Few Americans are lucky enough to have no one they know diagnosed with cancer. This wasn’t always the case, though, and in the aftermath of National Cancer Month, we’d like to look back less than 100 years to the first organized movements against cancer: the American Cancer Society and the Women’s Field Army.

Our own Missy Lundquist has extensively studied the origins of the cancer awareness movement, beginning from the late 19th century, when cancer was “not [even] considered fit for civilized public conversation.” In 1893, President Cleveland took a month’s vacation on his yacht, seemingly abandoning affairs of state in favor of relaxation. However, rather than sailing, he was actually secretly receiving surgery to treat his cancer of the jaw. The stigma against admitting to having cancer was so strong that he decided that he would rather be seen as vacationing than sick with a seemingly always-fatal disease.

However, in the 20th century, cancer awareness began to grow until it reached the state of a full-fledged “War on Cancer,” with women at the forefront. In the 1910s, a group of prominent men formed the first cancer-fighting national organization, the American Society for the Control of Cancer. However, their successes were limited until they gained the aid of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the 1920. The women of the GFWC took on the task of raising cancer awareness as if they were soldiers marching into battle. Their advocacy branch was the Women’s Field Army, where hundreds of thousands of women 500,000 at its peak in 1944 wore uniforms, had a hierarchy of officers, and in all other ways took spreading the word about cancer to be a military crusade. National Commander Marjorie Illig wrote that her followers were the “greatest defense units in the country on all fronts, the units of the WFA are fighting heroically to defend the citizens of our great country against cancer.” Their work led to our current mantra of early detection, and inspired the great flowering of organizations that today can give help when cancer strikes.

A few key dates:

1913 the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) is established by a group of prominent New York doctors and businessmen. This organization is the forerunner of the modern American Cancer Society.

1920s – the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), led by Grace Morrison Poole, join the ASCC in raising cancer awareness. They host lectures by physicians around the country and hold parlor discussions to spread the word.

1935 the Women’s Field Army (WFA) is founded to “spread the gospel” of early detection and prevention of cancer, led by National Commander Marjorie Illig.

1938 Congress, at the behest of the WFA, passes legislation declaring April to be Cancer Control Month.

1939 President Roosevelt signs the Congressional legislation into law and declares the first Cancer Control Month, an awareness month still honored to this day.

1944 the WFA boasts more than 500,000 members. Members begin to move from awareness to encouraging research. A men’s branch of the WFA is formed.

1951 the WFA is officially disbanded and absorbed into other cancer-fighting organizations.