Cancer was once a word uttered soto voce, a word so dangerous it would conjure demons and visions of the Spectre of Death. A barely-known radiologist named Marjorie B. Illig helped to change that, and the women of Donora readily jumped aboard her world-changing vision.
In 1936 Illig was serving as a field representative for the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now called the American Cancer Society. As a former radiologist Illig had seen firsthand x rays of abdomens poisoned with whitish splotches of cancerous tissue. She told her colleagues that physicians could identify early traces of cervical cancer and that, if the ASCC encouraged women to seek preventive care, millions of lives might be saved.
The ASCC listened and formed an all-volunteer group called the Women’s Field Army, whose members wore khaki uniforms and whose mission focused on urging American women to seek early detection and treatment, a key part of the new-found “war on cancer.” Illig was made National Commander of the group, which succeeded beyond all measure, growing the number of people active in cancer control from 15,000 in 1935 to a million and a half by 1939.
In the 1940s, the group took on a mission to support women being treated for advanced breast cancer. Back then thousands of women, unaware or in denial of the beast growing inside them, failed to seek treatment for breast masses. At some point the cancer would break through the skin, causing painful, caustic lesions that oozed blood, pus, and the grotesque remnants of diseased tissue.
These poor patients needed dressings to cover their wounds and absorb the fetid exudates. The ASCC asked their volunteers to make cancer dressings, which they crafted from white sheets, and cancer shirts, to be used as johnnies. Many Donorans aided in the cause, among them Donora native Gladys Schempp, one of her neighbors, and their two daughters, Annie and Cathy. Gladys belonged to a women’s club that worked throughout the year to help charities. Annie still remembers the times she made cancer shirts.
“We had to sit there and take the collars off men’s white cotton shirts,” she recalls, “the collars and the cuffs and all the buttons. We had to do that on the weekend. I remember how I didn’t want to do it, but, of course I did whatever my mom and dad told me. I was young, I would have rather played than do that, but my girlfriend was there so it wasn’t terrible. We could complain together.”
Youthful laments aside, the shirts and dressings made by the women of Donora, and by women in towns all over the nation, helped to make life more bearable for tens of thousands of women, women whose cancer was so advanced that their remaining time on Earth was rapidly coming to a close.
The American Cancer Society continues to recognize the tremendous work that Gladys, Annie, and the many thousands of ASCC volunteers performed. “More than anything else,” says the ACS website, “it was the Women’s Field Army that moved the American Cancer Society to the forefront of voluntary health organizations.”