But today, the nation's top scientists say, that commitment is slipping.
"We're trying to understand why breast cancer behaves the way that it does," says Dr. Bob Clarke, a leading researcher at Georgetown University. He is studying why breast cancer recurs. But Clarke says his federal grant for the study was cut — and that most cancer scientists are being asked to cut 30 percent.
"The impact is that you can't do the studies the way you want to do them," Clarke says.
At the National Cancer Institute — where most basic cancer research gets funded — the budget has been virtually flat since 2003, with the White House this year proposing a $78 million cut. The human cost this year will be that 3,000 fewer patients will be in clinical trials.
"If we do fewer clinical trials, fewer new treatments will come forward and be available to everybody," Clarke says.
Still, the war on cancer has brought progress. Cancer-related deaths — 554,000 per year — are going down. However, cancer survivors like Lance Armstrong argue that you don't quit when you're ahead, especially when a half-million dead is still a horrible number.
"That's 9/11 every two days. If they dropped that bomb every two days, I'm telling you this country would pay attention," the seven-time Tour de France champion says.
In Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has co-sponsored a bill to increase all medical research, including funding for cancer.
"We're fighting like the dickens," says Harkin, who has lost four of his five siblings to cancer. He blames the budget cuts on the war in Iraq.
"When we're spending $8 billion a month in Iraq, it's very tough to get the money for cancer research," Harkin says.
It's 36 years into the war on cancer, and more patients are being cured than ever. But the white-coated frontline soldiers say they've been slowed at a critical time in the battle.