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Advancing Our Understanding

Cancer has existed for centuries and, as the disease evolved, research has kept pace offering new insights and revolutionizing our understanding. Explore the timeline of science’s greatest epic journey.

  • 2011

    The National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. reached an all-time high of nearly 12 million in 2007. The report cites the significant progress in early detection and treatment as a major reason for the increased survival rate.

  • 2009

    The National Institutes of Health launches The Cancer Genome Atlas, an international, multi-institutional effort to characterize the genetic changes that occur in cancer. Drs. Charles Perou, a BCRF grantee since 2003, and Matthew Ellis, a grantee since 2002, are selected to lead the breast cancer studies.

  • 2003

    Dr. Michael Clarke, a BCRF grantee since 2005, and Max Wicha, a BCRF grantee since 2008, identify breast tumor origination cells, also known as breast cancer stem cells, as key components in metastasis.

  • 2003

    Scientists decode the three billion DNA letters in the human genome, capping a 13-year international collaboration known as the Human Genome Project. The project paved the way for research on the genetics of cancer.

  • 2001

    Dr. Charles Perou, a BCRF grantee since 2003, classifies breast cancer as a collection of diseases based on different patterns of genes. His discovery reshapes our understanding of breast cancer and helps to guide how treatments are selected.

  • Late 1990's

    Research demonstrates that preventative mastectomy and/or oophorectomy can help reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers for high-risk women who carry the BRCA mutations or have a family history of the disease.

  • 1998

    The FDA approves Herceptin (traztuzumab), the first targeted therapy for breast cancer, used to treat HER2-positive, which represents approximately 25 percent of breast cancer cases.

  • 1998

    Neoadjuvant therapy, which involves chemotherapy before surgery, is accepted as a new approach to breast cancer treatment. By shrinking tumors so they can be surgically removed, the approach helps women by making breast-conserving treatment an option.

  • 1998

    Major studies link obesity to an increased risk of common cancers, including breast cancer, which prompts the National Institutes of Health to publish guidelines on managing weight for adults.

  • 1998

    The FDA expands the use of Tamoxifen by approving the drug as a means to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer for high-risk women.

  • 1995

    An English team of scientists including Dr. Alan Ashworth, a BCRF grantee since 2008, discovers the BRCA2 gene.

  • 1994

    Dr. Mary-Claire King, a BCRF grantee since 1997, discovers the location of the BRCA1 gene and uncovers its role in hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. Because of Dr. King’s work, genetic testing is available to help predict the risk of breast and ovarian cancers by looking at inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

  • 1992-1994

    The FDA approves taxanes as a new chemotherapy option. Originally used to shrink tumors from ovarian cancer, taxanes over the next decade were shown to be effective for all stages of breast cancer.

  • 1990s

    Mortality rates from cancer begin to steadily decline for the first time since the 1930s.

  • 1992

    A surgical technique called sentinel lymph node biopsy provides a less invasive way to help determine cancer’s spread. First used with patients with melanoma, the procedure later proves effective for women with breast cancer.

  • 1982

    Dr. Robert Weinberg, a BCRF grantee since 2003, identifies and characterizes the first oncogene and tumor suppressor gene, providing the first specific proof that human genes cause cancer.

  • 1977

    Lumpectomy, which involves removing only the tumor rather than the entire breast, proves just as effective as mastectomy. The 10-year study was steered by Dr. Bernard Fisher and represented the first randomized clinical trial.

  • 1976

    Drs. J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus demonstrate that oncogenes are derived from normal cells and are capable of transforming healthy cells into cancerous ones. Their discovery, which earned them the Nobel Prize in 1989, changes how scientists think about cancer biology and leads to advances in targeted therapies.

  • 1976

    The American Cancer Society officially recommends the use of mammograms for breast cancer screening after modern methods were developed in the late 1960s.

  • 1975-1976

    Drs. Bernard Fisher and Gianni Bonadonna demonstrate that chemotherapy after surgery prolongs the life of early-stage breast cancer patients. This treatment method improves survival and cure rates in the future.

  • 1971

    Limited mastectomy proves just as effective as radical surgery for early-stage breast cancer. Less invasive and painful, the procedure speeds up recovery and paves the way for future breast-conserving surgeries.

  • 1971

    Dr. Judah Folkman, a BCRF grantee until 2008, links the formation of new blood vessels, known as angiogenesis, with tumor growth and progression. This discovery paves the way for a new class of targeted therapies.

  • 1971

    President Richard Nixon signs the National Cancer Act, beginning the “War on Cancer” and leading to a major expansion of cancer research efforts.

  • 1970's

    Researchers perform the first computed tomography, now known as a CT scan, on a patient. Providing clearer images of tumors, the procedure guides radiation and other treatments.

  • 1963

    A team of scientists at the National Cancer Institute show that chemotherapy could delay recurrence after breast cancer surgery.

  • 1966

    Tamoxifen, the first anti-estrogen drug and targeted breast cancer therapy, is developed in the United Kingdom. The FDA would approve the drug for treatment of metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. in 1977 and for prevention of breast cancer in 1999.

  • 1958

    Scientists at the National Cancer Institute demonstrate the effects of combination chemotherapy and set the stage for today’s approach to treatment.

  • 1958

    Elwood Jensen discovers the estrogen receptor, providing the first specific target in breast cancer treatment.

  • 1955

    The U.S. National Cancer Institute establishes the Clinical Trials Cooperative Group Program, a countrywide research network that tests important advances in cancer treatment, prevention and screening.

  • 1955

    Charles Huggins uncovers the link between estrogen and testosterone in the growth of breast and prostate cancers, respectively. His discovery, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1966, brought new hope for the treatment of hormonally regulated cancers.

  • 1953

    James Watson and Francis Crick hypothesize the double helix as the molecular structure of DNA, the genetic code that gives orders to all cells. They would receive the Nobel Prize in 1962, and scientists would later use their finding to connect mutations in DNA to cancer and other diseases.

  • 1947

    Dr. Sidney Farber is the first to use chemotherapy on children with leukemia, steering the way for modern chemotherapy and combination therapies still applied today.

  • 1913

    Albert Salomon is the first to use X-rays to study breast cancer, introducing the idea of mammography.

  • 1937

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the National Cancer Institute Act, creating the National Cancer Institute to coordinate cancer research and education.

  • 1902

    Marie and Pierre Curie purify a new element called radium, launching the science of radiation and the use of radiation in medicine. They would receive the Nobel Prize in 1903, and Marie would receive the honor again in 1911 for her work in radioactivity.

  • 1896

    George Beatson establishes the first hint that the hormone system was involved in cancer growth when he publishes details of three patients whose breast cancer responded favorably to removal of the ovaries.

  • 1882

    William Halsted performs the first radical mastectomy, making it the standard of care for the next century. The procedure entailed removing the breast, surrounding lymph nodes, and both chest muscles in a single en bloc procedure to prevent the recurrence and spread of cancer.

  • 1865

    Rudolf Virchow observes disturbed cellular growth, or hyperplasia, in cancer.

  • 1860

    Gregor Mendel pioneers the study of inheritance with a study of 30,000 pea plants, forming the cornerstone of modern genetics.

  • 1757

    Henri Le Dran is the first to advocate for surgical removal of a tumor to treat cancer before it spreads.

  • 47 A.D.

    Philosopher Celsus translates karkinos into Latin, coining the term cancer.

  • 160 A.D.

    Claudius Galen theorizes that breast cancer is a systemic disease affecting the whole body.

  • 2500 B.C.

    The first description of cancer is recorded in an ancient Egyptian scroll.

  • 400 B.C.

    Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, uses the Greek word for crab, karkinos, to describe limb-like tumors.