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Cancer History

The oldest description of human cancer was found in an Egyptian papyri written between 3000-1500 BC. It referred to tumors of the breast.  The oldest specimen of a human cancer was found in the remains of a female skull dating back to the Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC).The mummified skeletal remains of Peruvian Incas, dating back 2400 years ago, contained lesions suggestive of malignant melanoma. And cancer was found in fossilized bones and manuscripts of ancient Egypt.  Cancer is not a disease of our modern industrialized age, as some may have believed at one time.

One of the earliest human cancers found in the remains of mummies was a bone cancer suggestive of osteosarcoma.  Louis Leakey found the oldest possible hominid malignant tumor in 1932 from the remains of either a Homo erectus or an Australopithecus.  This tumor was suggestive of a Burkitt’s lymphoma (although that nomenclature was certainly not in use then).  Diseases that we know to be rare cancers today have had a long history.

Hippocrates is credited with being the first to recognize the difference between benign and malignant tumors.  His writings describe cancers of many body sites.  The swollen blood vessels around the malignant tumors so reminded him of crab claws, he called the disease karkinos (the Greek name for crab).  In English this term translates to carcinos or carcinoma.

Diagnosing The Disease

In 1761, Giovanni Morgagni of Padua was the first to perform autopsies to relate the patient's illness to their pathologic findings postmortem.  Cancer could now be detected, albeit after death.

The 19th century saw the birth of scientific oncology with the discovery and use of the modern microscope. Rudolf Virchow, often called the “founder of cellular pathology”, provided the scientific basis for the modern pathologic study of cancer.  This method not only allowed a better understanding of the damage cancer had done to the patient; but also laid the foundation for the development of cancer surgery.  Body tissues removed by the surgeon could now be examined and a precise diagnosis made.  In addition, the pathologist could tell the surgeon whether the operation had completely removed the tumor.

At that same time the English surgeon, Stephen Paget devised a theory on cancer growth referred to as the "seed and soil theory".  He theorized that metastatic tumor cells are like seeds, evenly distributed throughout the body through the bloodstream, but only grow in the organ (‘soil’) they find compatible.  This laid the groundwork for a true understanding of metastasis.

In 1896 a German Physics Professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen used the term ‘X-ray’ during a lecture he gave (X is the algebraic symbol of an unknown).  Within months, systems were being devised to use X-rays for diagnosis.  Roentgen won the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution.

Finding The Cause

One of the first beliefs on the cause of cancer was that there was an excess of black bile collecting in various body sites.  This theory was prevalent throughout the middle ages.  At this point in time, autopsies were a religiously forbidden practice.  In the 1700's, the belief that cancer was composed of fermenting and degenerating lymph fluid was predominant.  In the 1800's and early 1900's there were several theories for the cause of the disease, including trauma, chronic irritation, viral, and cellular derivations.

John Hill first recognized an environmental cause from the dangers of tobacco use in 1761 and published a book “Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff”.  Percivall Pott of London in 1775 described an occupational cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps caused by soot collecting under their scrotum.  This led to identification of a number of occupational carcinogenic exposures and public health measures to reduce cancer risk.  This was the beginning of understanding that there may be an environmental cause to certain cancers.

Finding the 'Cure'

The second century Greek physician Galen, who practiced medicine in Rome, is considered to be the first oncologist.  He and Hippocrates both regarded breast cancer to be a side effect of melancholia.  And Galen considered a person to be incurable, in the majority of cases, after a diagnosis of cancer.

The famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) suggested that some cancers might be cured by surgery. If the tumor had not invaded nearby tissue and was "moveable," he said, "There is no impropriety in removing it".  During the 17th century, the Dutch surgeon Adrian Helvetius performed both lumpectomy and mastectomy for breast cancer.  He claimed that surgical removal was a curative procedure.

In the 1880s and 1890s, William Stewart Halsted devised an extensive operation for breast cancer that entailed removal of the breast and underlying muscles, and lymph nodes under the arm.  He eventually achieved an unprecedented 72 percent five-year cure rate for patients whose disease had not spread to adjoining glands.  Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen's discovery of X-ray technology in 1896 led to the use of x-ray, in the form of radiation, for cancer treatment by 1899.

The first drug used for cancer chemotherapy was not initially developed for that use.  Mustard gas was used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I and was studied further during World War II.  During a military operation in World War II, a large number of military personnel were accidentally exposed to mustard gas and were later found to have abnormally low white blood counts.  It was reasoned that an agent that damaged the rapidly growing white blood cells might have a similar effect on cancer.  Therefore, in the 1940s, several patients with advanced lymphomas were given the drug (by vein, rather than by breathing the irritating gas).  It proved to be effective, temporarily; but it did initiate research into other substances used for cancer treatment.

And Today......

That brings us to modern day research into the disease of cancer; including DNA structure, gene mapping and the study of genetic codes, angiogenesis, and signal transduction.

Do you want to see more on the internet about the history of Cancer? I suggest that you visit these sites:

ACS History of Cancer