It's a bit like trying to punch Jell-O, but three National Cancer Institute researchers have recently been fighting the Laetrile lobby on its own turf.

In the latest New England Journal of Medicine, they report that they sent out 445,000 letters in pursuit of the "cured," but received only 230 references and 67 cases worth reviewing. Of those, they saw only six cases that suggested any link - coincidental or not - between Laetrile and the decreased size of a tumor.

Still, I hope that the researchers, even with their conviction in the power of facts to sway the human mind, aren't waiting around for a sudden decline in the commodities market on apricots.

From my own experience with Laetrile believers, the important word is "believe." There is a communications gap between the scientific community and the Laetrile advocates the size of a Great Leapo of Faith. One is seeking proof and the other is seeking hope.

But then, few of us are talking scientific language when we're speaking of cancer. Among the medically aware, cancer is a general, and maybe misleading, label for a range of diseases, from the minor to the terminal. But to the general community, cancer is a buzz word for the kind of death that hides under the obituary-column phrase " . . . after a long illness."

To most of us it is a vague, amorphous, science-fiction sort of thing that grows larger and larger, threatening to gobble up the neighborhood theater at any moment.

I won't make light of our cancerphobia. I am as much a victim of it as the next, and as Woody Allen once wrote, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that there isn't someone out to get you." Cancer is real, and it kills.

Yet, it seems to me that, in a curious way, each generation chooses its dominant fear from some Top Ten list. Out of the available terrors - war, pestilence, famine - there is always one that seems to dominate our children's nightmares and color our adult humor. There is a fear that fits the times.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was The Bomb. This thing, The Bomb, belonged to a generation of war babies presided over by a general-president in the midst of a cold-war.

It was a time of massive conformity with its concomitant fear of massive destruction. As school children, we were regularly and hurriedly ushered into basements with CD wall plaques. Our adolescent nighttime confrontations with the idea of death came prepackaged in mushroom shapes. ut we are fickle even about fear.

We seem to have dropped our Bombphobia now without, in any way, reducing the reasons for it. Cancer now leads this macabre Hit Parade.

The middle-sized children I know seem to think bleakly death comes, not with a bang, but with a tumor. Cancer is the terror of adults who are more focussed on their private lives and, therefore, their private deaths.

Cancer is the obsession of people who sense that disaster may not be a purposeful instrument of public policy but a matter of accidental, random carelessness. It's phobia that fits the age of environmentalism.

We worry more about PCB than about Ground Zero. If there were a 1970s version of "On the Beach," it would take pkace near a small chemical plant in New Jersey or in a backyard in Nigara Falls.

The carcinomas that get the most press are not those of aging but of manufacturing. We are constantly forced to think about what "gives" us cancer, whether it's asbestos or nitrite or, as comedian Martin Mull once warned, leisure suits.

The most ardent advocates of Laetrile are fed by and feed on this anxiety. They are part of a general attitude that regards technology as more villian than savior, and science as more likely to cause cancer than cure it. They are, of course, extremists of a particular kind.

Whatever it is that motivated one group to see safety in the bowels of a home bomb shelter sees another group sending people to seek a cure in the pits of apricots. As they sit there, in the realm of false hope, they are way out of reach of such dubious totems of science as "the facts."