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Mr. Nixon's War

by J. H. Hacsi

In 1969 President Richard Nixon lobbed the first grenade in the mini-war that preceded the full-scale war. He proposed a reduction in the budget of the National Cancer Institute. This prompted a major media campaign aggressively pursued by the American Cancer Society as well as the NCI to reverse any reduction. Their campaign included a full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to the president:

“Mr. Nixon, You Can Cure Cancer.”

President Nixon reversed course and in his State of the Union address in January 1971 he declared a War on Cancer. He would ask for an extra $100 million to launch his war and later would ask for whatever additional funds could be effectively used. America had split the atom and put men on the moon. Now they would conquer this dreaded disease.

It is now close to forty years later and we are still nowhere near winning this war. .

We currently live surrounded by cancer producing substances. Two known carcinogens are tobacco and asbestos. The term asbestos designates any of several minerals that readily separate into long, thin, flexible fibers. Because these fibers are resistant to heat and electrical and chemical damage, they were widely used by builders in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

In time it was found that this “miracle mineral” was highly toxic. Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer.

The highest paid and most popular screen actor of the 1960s and 70s died of mesothelioma at the age of fifty. He was exposed to asbestos throughout his life. Before becoming an actor, he had bounced around from job to job, often working on construction sites. While he served in the Marine Corps he was sentenced to six weeks in the brig for overstaying a leave. He was assigned to work with a crew in the hold of a ship cleaning the engine room. As the crew ripped out pipes covered with asbestos linings, the air became so clogged with particles the men could hardly breathe.

As an actor he worked on sound stages with insulation made of asbestos. He loved to race and asbestos was used in the brake linings of racecars and in the helmets and suits that drivers wore. Unfortunately he would pay with his life for all this exposure. His name was Steve Mcqueen, Mr. Cool himself.

Steve was born on March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. His father deserted the family when Steve was only six months old and his mother left while he was still a young boy. He began to live with an uncle in Slater, Missouri. “I had to look out for myself when I was a kid,” Steve said. “I had no one to talk to. I was all alone. It taught me to be self reliant.”

At age twelve he traveled to Los Angeles to live with his mother. He hung out with a gang, got into trouble and was sent to the California Junior Boys Republic, a home for troubled boys. Steve was grateful to this home for the rest of his life. He visited frequently, donated money and set up a scholarship. In 1983 a building was dedicated to him. A bronze plaque mounted on it reads in part: “Steve Mcqueen came here a troubled boy but left here a man.”

Steve grew up with itchy feet and bounced around from state to state, on occasion from country to country, and from job to job. An actress he was dating suggested he try acting. He was accepted into the Neighborhood Playhouse and buckled down to serious study. He played on Broadway and in 1956 married his first wife, Neile Adams, an actress. They moved to California where Steve became wildly successful, first on television in his series, Wanted Dead or Alive, and then in a series of classic movies.

He loved racing, dabbled in drugs, drove recklessly while playing Catch Me If You Can with the police, chased women and smoked up a storm. Filming the movie The Getaway he fell in love with his co-star Ali MacGraw. He and Neile split after fifteen years of marriage. He married Ali and plunged deeper into drugs. He let his hair grow long, had an unkempt beard and was said to look like a wild man. Many felt he was in a downward spiral. Soon he and Ali divorced.

In the spring of 1979 he moved to the small town of Santa Paula with Barbara Minty, who would become his third wife. In December of that year he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the lining between the lungs and the chest cage. By the time the cancer is detected, most patients have only a few months left. In Steve’s time, almost no one survived it. Back then neither chemotherapy nor surgery was effective against it.

A few months before his death, Steve flew down to Mexico hoping to find a cure. He was extremely weak and had to be carried onto the plane on a stretcher. After arriving in Mexico, he was put on a torturous regimen that included animal cell injections, laetrile and the ingestion of over one hundred vitamin pills a day. None of this helped. He only grew weaker.

On November 7, 1980 Steve Mcqueen died, not quite nine years after President Nixon had signed the National Cancer Act into law, declaring that he hoped in future years this would be considered the most significant act of his presidency, the Act that was supposed to bring a victory against every form of cancer in five to ten years.

After almost forty years of Nixon’s War, the American Cancer Society estimates that in the year 2010, well over half a million Americans will die of cancer.

This is not a war we are winning.

When we are losing it so badly, isn’t it time we took a radically different approach?


Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14.

Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore.


J. H. graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism and has read widely in these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.

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