When Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law two days before Christmas in 1971, "I said, 'I hope that in the years ahead we will be able to look back and see that this action has been the most important action taken by this administration.' "

Even if history one day decides that to be the case, Nixon wasn't quite ready on Saturday to declare victory in what's come to be known as "The War on Cancer."

In a rare Washington appearance, Nixon spoke to about 250 delegates to the 12th national meeting of the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) at the Hyatt Regency. After receiving its award for service to cancer patients, the former president said, "The bad news is that we had hoped we could find a cure for cancer, and we have not . . . We also found that the death rate of cancer has actually increased."

He saw as "good news" from the past 15 years a 40 percent increase in survival rates, cures for 10 more types of cancer (there were only two curable cancers in 1971) and progress in treatment and prevention.

"I understand that most scientists believe that cancer is caused by defects in certain genes," Nixon said. "Now, as a result of the kind of research that has been accomplished since this act was passed, we find 'oncogenes' have been identified . . . While we have not found a cure, we . . . are beginning to find a cause. And if we find a cause, the cure is likely to come."

Former ACCC president Dr. John W. Yarbro, in presenting the award, said that eight years after passage of the National Cancer Act, the cure rate rose from 42 percent to 49 percent, saving the lives of 4 million people.

Nixon said he had had "very personal reasons" for wanting to find a cure for cancer. His wife Pat was 12 years old when her mother died of cancer, and his favorite aunt died of breast cancer when he was a high school freshman.

Citing progress in cancer treatment and prevention, he told how Rose Mary Woods, his longtime secretary who was in the audience, underwent surgery for lung cancer this winter.

"She had a very rugged time, but on the other hand she is here today. If she had not gone to the doctor, if he hadn't insisted on the operation, she would not have been here today. That shows what happens from diagnoses," Nixon said.

He also said his younger brother, Donald Nixon, has been undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease. They saw each other in California three weeks ago.

"He told me his doctor told him if he had had available only the treatment available in 1971, he might not be alive. Hodgkin's survival has moved up from 65 percent in 1971 to 73 percent," Nixon said.

In fact, the way Nixon remembered 1971, it had been a banner year for his administration. In July 1971 he announced his trip to China ("the result of a new relationship"), in October he announced his trip to Russia ("the first arms control pact between the Soviet Union and the United States of America"), and that was the year "we had reduced American casualties and American troops in Vietnam by 75 percent."

Asked Nixon, rhetorically, if ambiguously: "Now in the light of all those achievements, how could I say that the action of signing the National Cancer Act was the most important achievement of our administration?"