The History of Cancer

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Early history of cancer

Defining cancer

Cancer begins when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancer, but they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells. To learn more about how cancer forms and grows, see our document called What Is Cancer?

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. About one-half of all men and one-third of all women in the US will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer.

Oldest descriptions of cancer

Human beings and other animals have had cancer throughout recorded history. So it’s no surprise that from the dawn of history people have written about cancer. Some of the earliest evidence of cancer is found among fossilized bone tumors, human mummies in ancient Egypt, and ancient manuscripts. Growths suggestive of the bone cancer called osteosarcoma have been seen in mummies. Bony skull destruction as seen in cancer of the head and neck has been found, too.

Our oldest description of cancer (although the word cancer was not used) was discovered in Egypt and dates back to about 3000 BC. It’s called the Edwin Smith Papyrus and is a copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. It describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were removed by cauterization with a tool called the fire drill. The writing says about the disease, “There is no treatment.”

Origin of the word cancer

The origin of the word cancer is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who is considered the “Father of Medicine.” Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumors. In Greek, these words refer to a crab, most likely applied to the disease because the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer called to mind the shape of a crab. The Roman physician, Celsus (28-50 BC), later translated the Greek term into cancer, the Latin word for crab. Galen (130-200 AD), another Greek physician, used the word oncos (Greek for swelling) to describe tumors. Although the crab analogy of Hippocrates and Celsus is still used to describe malignant tumors, Galen’s term is now used as a part of the name for cancer specialists – oncologists.

Last Medical Review: 06/12/2014
Last Revised: 06/12/2014