Cancer: History And How This Disease Derived Its Name

Cancer is when abnormal cells in any body part starts growing out of control or spread to other parts of the body. It has existed for all of human history. The earliest known descriptions of cancer appear in several papyri from Ancient Egypt. The ‘Edwin Smith Papyrus’ (an ancient Egyptian medical text) was written around 1600 BC (possibly a fragmentary copy of a text from 2500 BC) and contains a description of cancer, as well as a procedure to remove breast tumours by cauterization.

Cancer: History And How This Disease Derived Its Name

Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) described several kinds of cancer, referring to them by the term karkinos (carcinos), the Greek word for crab or crayfish, as well as carcinoma. Hippocrate is a Greek physician of the Age of Pericles (Classical Greece), who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine.

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This comes from the appearance of the cut surface of a solid malignant tumour. With “the veins stretched on all sides as the animal the crab has its feet, whence it derives its name”. Since it was against Greek tradition to open the body. Hippocrates only described and made drawings of outwardly visible tumors on the skin, nose, and breasts. Treatment was basically based on the humor theory of four bodily fluids (black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm). 

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Accordingly to the patient’s humor, treatment consisted of diet, blood-letting, and/or laxatives. Celsus (ca. 25 BC – 50 AD)(a Roman encyclopaedist, known for his extant medical work) translated karkinos into cancer. The Latin word for crab or crayfish and recommended surgery as treatment. Galen (2nd century AD) disagreed with the use of surgery and recommended purgatives instead. These recommendations largely stood for 1000 years.

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