How Cancer Was First Discovered and Treated

Have you ever wondered when cancer was first discovered? It might seem like a modern-day health problem, but people have been getting cancer for thousands of years. We know this because people in ancient history wrote about cancer.

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 have changed over time.

Person studying a device
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Where the Word "Cancer" Comes From

The word "cancer" was first used by a Greek physician named Hippocrates. He was considered the "father of medicine."

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.

Even though Hippocrates was the first to use "cancer" to talk about the disease, he did not discover it. Cancer was actually first seen much earlier in history.

The First Documented Case of Cancer

The world's oldest documented case of cancer was found on papers (papyrus) from ancient Egypt in 1500 BC. 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 tell the difference between cancerous (malignant) and noncancerous (benign) tumors. For example, surface tumors were taken out with surgery much like they are today.

Ancient History

People living in the ancient world did not know much about how the body worked. They had some interesting beliefs about why cancer happened.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates thought that there were four fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. He said that having too much black bile in a part of the body caused cancer. For the next 1,400 years, people believed that cancer was caused by too much black bile.

In ancient Egypt, most people believed that cancer was caused by the Gods.

Looking Inside the Body

After a person dies, a doctor called a pathologist can look inside the body at all the organs. This is called an autopsy.

In 1628, a doctor named William Harvey started doing autopsies to learn more about what the body looked like on the inside. It 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.

In 1761, Giovanni Morgagni of Padua did the first autopsy to find out why someone died. We still do autopsies for this reason today.

More Theories on Cancer Causes

In the 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.

In the 19th century, a doctor named Rudolf Virchow figured out that all our cells—even cancerous ones—come from cells. This was an important step in understanding how cancer happens.

Finding Out How Cancer Spreads

People still couldn't figure out how cancer got from one part of the body to another. Some people thought cancer spread because of trauma or parasites. Other people said cancer spread in the body "like a liquid."

A German surgeon named Karl Thiersch was the first person to prove that cancer spread through malignant cells.

While a lot of progress was made in understanding cancer, there were also some missteps along the way. In 1926, a Nobel Prize was wrongfully awarded for the discovery of the cause of stomach cancer—a worm.

Still Making Progress Today

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.

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 out new ways to find and treat cancer.

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 1800's?

    Cancer was treated throughout most of the 1800's 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 makes up cancer. Before this, it was believed that cancer was made up of lymph.

Was this page helpful?
8 Sources
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.
  1. Papavramidou N, Papavramidis T, Demetriou T. Ancient Greek and Greco-Roman methods in modern surgical treatment of cancerAnn Surg Oncol. 2010;17(3):665–667. doi:10.1245/s10434-009-0886-6

  2. Di Lonardo A, Nasi S, Pulciani S. Cancer: we should not forget the pastJ Cancer. 2015;6(1):29–39. doi:10.7150/jca.10336

  3. Faguet GB. A brief history of cancer: age-old milestones underlying our current knowledge database. Int J Cancer. 2015;136(9):2022-36. doi:10.1002/ijc.29134

  4. American Cancer Society. Early theories about cancer causes.

  5. Williamson AK. The conscientious autopsyAutops Case Rep. 2019;9(2):e2019098. doi:10.4322/acr.2019.098

  6. Walter E, Scott M. The life and work of Rudolf Virchow 1821-1902: "Cell theory, thrombosis and the sausage duel"J Intensive Care Soc. 2017;18(3):234–235. doi:10.1177/1751143716663967

  7. American Cancer Society. Understanding What Cancer Is: Ancient Time to Present.

  8. American Cancer Society: The Cancer Atlas. History of Cancer.