As far as scientists know cancer has always been a disease that humans have suffered from. Certainly, evidence of cancer tumours has been found in ancient Egyptian mummies. The earliest known written description of cancer was found in a document called the Edwin Smith Papyrus and it states back to 1600BC. This document describes eight cases of breast cancer and states “there is no treatment”.
Historians think that the word cancer which is now used to describe the disease came from a Greek doctor called Hippocrates who lived in 460-370BC. Hippocrates wrote about the cancer tumours he saw in patients, and described in his notes with the words “carcinos” and “Carcinoma”. These Greek words when translated into English mean crab. This description of a cancer tumour is fitting because a cancer tumour can look like a crab in the way it has a body and projections coming away from it.
Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine. This is because of a promise that he made about how he thought he should behave as a doctor in relation to his patients and job. This promise is known as the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ and says that doctors should try their hardest as a doctor, teach others their medical knowledge, preserve life by never giving a deadly drug or abortion and to keep patient secrets.
1400-1800AD – The Renaissance
The next important break though in doctors’ understandings of cancer came a few thousand years later during a historical period known as the renaissance. The renaissance was a historical period where people questioned the rules and regulations of society and began to try new things in a quest for knowledge. This quest for knowledge allowed doctors and scientists to try things they had not done before and so a deeper understanding of how the human body worked was gained. The new information came through autopsies, which had not been performed before this period. Autopsies allowed scientists to see inside the human body and to understand how bones, flesh and blood worked. One particular Scottish surgeon named John Hunter who lived in the eighteenth century (1728-1793) is famous for his autopsy work in which he suggested that some cancers might be cured by surgery.
During the nineteenth century, anaesthetic was invented and so techniques to operate on cancer tumours were developed. The microscope was also invented and this allowed for more precise information to be gathered about how cancer develops and affects the body.
Cancer research continued for the next two hundred years and now in this 21st century it is ongoing. Scientists and doctors alike are constantly seeking better ways of preventing, detecting, treating and curing cancer. Hopefully, within the not too distant future, this history of cancer section can include the date when the cure for cancer was found!