The March, NCI oral history, and the Oncology Nursing Society

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The March: Coming Together to Conquer Cancer

Why come to Washington, DC? Because this is America. Because historically when Americans have had enough—enough segregation, enough oppression, enough injustice—they’ve come to Washington, DC. They come to testify, to bear witness, to stand vigil, to protest, to raise their voices, to let their lawmakers know what is unacceptable to them and to say, ‘NO MORE.

Ellen L. Stovall

An excerpt from Judith L. Pearson’s new book, From Shadows to Life: A Biography of the Cancer Survivorship Movement, follows:

On February 23, 1997, Ellen Stovall, CEO of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS), sent an email to Betsy Clark, Oncology Social Worker and president of the NCCS board of Directors. “I’ve been taking the pulse of a few key people in the cancer community,” Ellen wrote, “and trying to figure out the best way to reach people to disseminate our materials AND raise consciousness of the public at large about survivorship and NCCS. I believe I have found the answer to the latter and it’s a biggie! We need to talk.”

Ellen’s idea was a march on Washington, with General Norman Schwarzkopf in fatigues leading an army of survivors, advocates, members of the oncology community, and more. Together, they would wage a new war on cancer. NCCS would also bring other advocacy organizations whose stakeholders would participate. The country and the world would see a sea of humanity, all connected to cancer survivors. And their collective voice would ring loud in the ears of Congress, the men and women responsible for doling out cancer research funding. After all, Ellen told Betsy, if Louis Farrakhan could get a Million Man March, what’s the big deal?

Others around the country were also acutely aware of the way Nixon’s war—and attention to cancer—had stagnated. Unbeknownst to Ellen or Betsy, those folks were percolating on some kind of a big splash as well. One of them was prostate cancer survivor Michael Milken, the financier who had founded CaP CURE, the Association for the Cure of Cancer of the Prostate, a disease he had survived. Two years earlier, he had participated in the NCCS Congress. Ellen saw him on April 6, 1997, and mentioned the march idea to him. She and Betsy had taken the idea to the NCCS board, too, and they all agreed to work on feasibility details behind the scenes, but not to make any announcement till their proverbial ducks were lined up. And then fate intervened.

On April 7, 1997, Dr. Klausner was unable to take part in a cancer panel to air on Larry King Live. Ellen was asked to step in, with the rest of the panel being made up of actor Robert Urich (a synovial sarcoma survivor who connected remotely from Los Angeles), ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson (a melanoma survivor), talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. (a lung cancer survivor), television journalist Paula Zahn (who’d had four family members diagnosed with cancer a decade earlier) and Milken.

The program began innocently, with Ellen, Milken, and Donaldson lamenting the meager cancer research dollars and the fragmentation of its organizations. During the commercial, Donaldson declared, “We need a march!”

“Ellen’s in charge of marches,” Milken said, in an offhanded way. The concept spread like wildfire around the studio and by the time they were back on the air, King proclaimed in his booming voice, “We have an announcement!”

Ellen was a deer caught in headlights. This was just, as yet, an idea. No strategic planning had been done.

Read the full excerpt and view photos from The March here.


Recent contributions


NCI Oral History Project

All NCI Oral History Project articles are collected here.


Oncology Nursing Society 40th Anniversary

The Oncology Nursing Society was established in 1975. These primary sources are from the 40th anniversary of ONS in 2015.


This column in The Cancer Letterfeatures the latest posts to the Cancer History Project by our growing list of contributors.

The Cancer History Project is a free, web-based, collaborative resource intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act and designed to continue in perpetuity. The objective is to assemble a robust collection of historical documents and make them freely available.

Access to the Cancer History Project is open to the public at CancerHistoryProject.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at @CancerHistProj.


Is your institution a contributor to the Cancer History Project? Would you like us to tell you about the project and how you can get involved?

Eligible institutions include cancer centers, advocacy groups, professional societies, pharmaceutical companies, and key organizations in oncology.

To apply to become a contributor, please contact admin@cancerhistoryproject.com.

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