The History of Cancer: Discovery and Treatment

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Cancer may have been "discovered" and written about thousands of years ago. However, the disease itself has actually existed since before the evolution of humans.

It was first documented in Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Since that time, people from cultures all over the world have written about the disease and its potential treatments.

This article will look at what we know about the history of cancer. It will also talk about how our understanding of what causes cancer and how it can be treated has changed over time.

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Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

History of Cancer

  • 1500 BCE: The world's oldest documented case of cancer was found on papers (papyrus) from ancient Egypt. It talked about a tumor found in the breast. The cancer was treated by destroying the tissue with a hot instrument called "the fire drill." Today, we call this "cauterization." Some writings have shown that the ancient Egyptians could distinguish between cancerous (malignant) and noncancerous (benign) tumors. For example, surface tumors were removed with surgery, much like today.
  • 460 BCE: In ancient Greece, Hippocrates thought there were four fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. He said having too much black bile in a part of the body caused cancer. For the next 1,400 years, people believed cancer was caused by too much black bile.
  • 1628: A physician named William Harvey started doing autopsies to learn more about what the body looked like on the inside. This also helped scientists figure out what each organ did. For example, when blood circulation was discovered, it opened the door for more research on different diseases.
  • 1761: Giovanni Morgagni of Padua did the first autopsy to find out why someone died. We still do autopsies for this reason today.
  • 1775: A British surgeon named Percivall Pott discovered that testicular cancer was common in chimney sweeps. This was the first time a cancer was connected to an environmental cause.
  • 17th century: The discovery of the lymphatic system led to new ideas about cancer. The lymphatic system includes the tissues, vessels, and organs that move a substance called lymph around your body. Lymph is an important part of your immune system. When the lymphatic system was discovered, it brought about the possibility that problems in this part of the body could cause cancer. This idea was called the lymph theory. It replaced Hippocrates' theory about black bile and cancer.
  • 1838: Johannes Mueller, a German pathologist, showed that cancer is made of cells, not lymph. Mueller's student, physician Rudolf Virchow, figured out that all our cells—even cancerous ones—come from other cells. However, he thought cancer spread in the body "like a liquid."
  • 1860: A German surgeon named Karl Thiersch was the first person to prove that cancer spread through malignant cells.
  • 1915: Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and Koichi Ichikawa at Tokyo University applied coal tar to the skin of rabbits, inducing cancer and showing that some substances are carcinogens or cancer-causing.
  • 1962: James Watson and Frances Crick won a Nobel Prize for discovering the chemical structure of DNA.
  • 1970s: Scientists discover oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.

How Cancer Was Named

Although most people cite Hippocrates as the first person to use the word cancer, he didn't actually use those words. Instead, Hippocrates used the Greek words carcinos and carcinoma when he wrote about tumors. These words were related to the Greek word for "crab" because Hippocrates thought the insides of the tumors looked like crabs (crayfish). He started using the word karkinos to talk about cancer.

The Roman physician Celsus was the first to translate the word into "cancer."

Current Progress

The 20th century was an exciting time in cancer research. Carcinogens, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and better ways to diagnose cancer were all discovered in these years. Some of the most important discoveries of the 20th century include:

  • 1981: Japanese professor Takeshi Hirayama published the first research linking lung cancer to second-hand smoke. 
  • 1982: Baruch S. Blumberg helped develop a vaccine against hepatitis B, a cause of liver cancer.
  • 1989: The first gene therapy cancer treatments began to evolve.
  • 1994: Scientists discovered the BRCA1 gene. This was the first known gene found to predispose a person to developing breast or ovarian cancer.
  • 1999: Jan Walboomers and Michele Manos found evidence implicating human papillomavirus (HPV) to 99.7% percent of cervical cancers.

Today, we are still learning more about cancer. We have found ways to prevent and treat some forms of cancer and even cure others. Clinical trials have allowed scientists to test new ways to find and treat cancer. Some of this century's notable discoveries so far include:

  • 2006: The first vaccine against the HPV virus was approved in the United States.
  • 2009: Researchers find that immunotherapy improves cure rates for children with neuroblastoma.
  • 2011: Low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans help reduce lung cancer deaths by finding early-stage cancer in high-risk people.
  • 2016: Researchers find evidence that a type of gene therapy called (CAR) T can produce remission in some people with B-cell hematologic cancers.
  • 2021: The OncoKB, a genetic variant database, was recognized by the FDA as a tool for predicting drug responses in people with cancer. This will help oncologists find the best individual treatments for people with specific types of cancer.

Summary

Cancer as a disease has been around for millennia, although cancer as we know it and the field of oncology are more recent, like several hundred years. New advancements are being made all the time, and huge leaps have been made in the last few decades alone. This bodes well for the future of cancer treatments and therapies.

A Word From Verywell

How we look at cancer and its treatments has signifigantly changed in the last few centuries. Even decades ago, we had limited treatment options and less research. Learning about cancer and treatment history can be interesting when seeing how far we've come in such a short time. With new research and discoveries occurring all the time, the future of cancer research is an exciting topic.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long has cancer been around?

    Cancer has been around since humanity began recording its history and likely existed even before that time. The oldest description of cancer originates from Egypt around 3000 BC in a text called the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which also describes the Egyptian process of tumor removal using a method of cauterization.

  • How was cancer treated in the 1800s?

    Cancer was treated throughout most of the 1800s using surgery to remove cancerous tumors and affected organs. The discovery of X-rays in 1895 by a physicist named Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen helped to diagnose cancer cases and helped pave the way for radiation therapy.

  • Who discovered cancer cells?

    In 1838, a pathologist known as Johannes Müller showed that cancer cells are what makeup cancer. Before this, it was believed that cancer was made up of lymph.

  • How was cancer first treated?

    It was first treated by surgery, although early physicians realized that cancer often came back after surgery.

  • Who invented chemotherapy?

    The German chemist Paul Ehrlich started working with drugs to treat infectious diseases in the early 1900s. He created the word "chemotherapy" to describe the use of chemicals to treat disease. He wasn't very optimistic about medicine to treat cancer, though.

  • Why is cancer more common now?

    Cancer is more common with age, and more people are living longer, increasing the risk of cancer. A better metric of progress is the cancer death rate, which is decreasing, indicating that we are developing better treatments for cancer.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Originally written by Lisa Fayed