Starting in the 1920s, the first initiatives to organize the control of cancer in Argentina soon revealed the presence of different actors and interests, a specialized cancer institute, a women’s voluntary organization, state authorities, university departments, cancerologists, and gynecologists. Initially concentrated around the activities of the Institute of Experimental Medicine for the Study and Treatment of Cancer in Buenos Aires, cancer interventions expanded in the following decades through university departments and gynecology services, which outlined a decentralized approach for reining in the centralized efforts from the institute. While a therapeutic-based approach with substantial funding for research institutes characterized industrialized countries’ initiatives until the end of World War II, in Argentina it was within the field of cancer diagnosis where specialists sought to create the foundational structures of cancer organization. Early detection of tumors, it was argued, favored a good prognosis with surgical treatment, placing the burden of cancer control on public education, the availability of diagnostic services, and doctors’ knowledge of cancer identification.
From the 1920s to the early 1980s, three distinct periods can be identified: first, an institutional approach, where the first cancer institute attempted to concentrate all the activities related to the control of cancer, that is, lay education, scientific research, diagnosis and treatment, patients’ support, and cancer statistics; second, a state approach, inaugurated by the arrival of Juan Domingo Perón to government, where the centralization of cancer initiatives became a state affair; and third, a long period characterized by the retirement of the state—marked by political unrest and a succession of military governments until the return of democracy in 1983—informed by decentralizing policies, the prominent role of civil society actors, such as voluntary organizations and medical societies, and the relative sway of the Pan American Health Organization. Throughout these three periods, all these actors played a role, and their ambivalent relationship and, often poor, interaction shaped the country’s efforts to control and prevent a disease that, since the 1940s, has steadily occupied the second cause of death. As the early detection strategy prevailed, responsibility for cancer control and prevention was constantly redistributed among the public, doctors, educators, and those who financed cancer services. The national state emerged as a feeble agent in cancer governance and, as discussed in the final section, this legacy is still felt today.