Egyptian writings dating back to approximately 1600 BC describe cases of breast ulcers that were treated with a tool called "the fire drill," believed now to be a reference to cauterization. The author states that of these cases "there is no treatment," implying that the disease had no cure.
Hippocrates (ca. 400BC - ca. 370BC) referred to tumors as "carcinos," which is Greek for crab or crayfish. He felt that the appearance of the cut surface of a malignant tumor look crab-like, with "the veins stretched on all sides as the animal the crab has its feet."
Several hundred years later, Celsus (ca. 25 BC - 50 AD) translated the Greek word "carcinos" into its Latin form - "cancer." Galen, in the second century AD, referred to benign tumors as "oncos" - Greek for swelling. He used Hippocrates' word "carcinos" only for malignant tumors. Later, Galen added the suffix "-oma" to "carcinos," arriving at the term "carcinoma" which is still in use today.
Developing Theories of Cancer Causation
The next recognized writings about surgical treatment for cancer were authored in the 1020s by Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina) in "The Canon of Medicine," Avicenna wrote that excision of the tumors should be radical, making sure that all diseased tissue was removed even to include amputation of affected body parts. Cauterization of the treated area was also recommended.
It wasn't until five hundred years or so had passed (in the 16th and 17th centuries) that it was considered acceptable for doctors to dissect corpses in order to ascertain the causes of death. A German professor, Wilhelm Fabry, put forth the theory that a milk clot in a mammary duct was the cause of breast cancer. A Dutch professor, Francois de la Boe Sylvius, theorized that all cancers were caused by "acidic lymph fluid." During the same period, a scientist by the name of Nicolaes Tulp came to believe that cancer was in fact a slowly spreading poison that was contagious in nature.
With the invention and resultant widespread use of the microscope in the 1700's, doctors were able to determine that the cancer "poison" spread from the primary tumor through the lymph system to other sites, a process known as "metastasis." Upon the general acceptance of cell theory, the concept of cancer "poison" was abandoned as scientists came to recognize the cancer was first and foremost a disease of cells.
The first recognized environmental cause of cancer occured in 1775 when British surgeon Percivall Pott discovered that cancer of the scrotum was a common disease among chimney sweeps. The first recognized genetic basis of cancer was recognized by Theodor Boveri, a German zoologist, in 1902. Boveri made a huge contribution to the study of cancer cells, proposing that chromosomes were distinct bodies which transmitted different inheritance factors. It was also Boveri who proposed the existence of cell cycle check points, tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes, and who theorized that cancers might be caused by radiation, physical or chemical changes in the body, or by pathogenic microorganisms.
Modern Cancer Research
In 1926 the British Ministry of Health and scientist Janet Lane-Claypon published what was at the time ground-breaking work on the epidemiology of cancer. Lane-Claypon's study compared the health of 500 breast cancer patients with 500 control patients of the same background and lifestyle.
In 1956 the "Lung Cancer and Other Causes of Death in Relation to Smoking. A Second Report on the Mortality of Bristish Doctors", also known as the "British Doctors Study," was published by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill. Dr. Doll started the Oxford Unit for Cancer Epidemiology in 1968. This unit, the first to have computers to assist in its work, was able to compile large amounts of cancer data leading to more possibilities for research and study.
Since that time scientists, doctors, hospitals and governments have all worked together to study the causes and potential cures for cancer.
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