The Origin of the Word, “Cancer”


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Throughout history, cancer has been recorded. Fossilized bone tumors show earliest evidence of cancer in human mummies in ancient Egypt. While the word “cancer” wasn’t used, the oldest description of cancer was discovered in Egypt, dating back to about 3000 B.C.E.. The description is in a copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. The textbook is called the Edwin Smith Papyrus. These papers describe eight cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast. The treatment was cauterization with what was called “The fire drill.” The writings about the disease: “There is no treatment.”

Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.E.), who is considered the “Father of Medicine”, is credited for the origin of the word “cancer.” He used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe all tumors. In Greek, carcinos and carcinoma refer to “crab”, a reference presumably applied to the disease for it’s claw-like spreading projections from the tumor, bringing to mind the shape of a crab.

The Roman physician, Celsus (28-50 B.C.E.), later translated the Greek term, carcinoma into cancer, the Latin word for crab.

Along came another Roman physician, Galen (130-200 A.D.), who used the word oncos (Greek for swelling) to describe tumors. The crab analogy of Hippocrates and Celsus is still used to describe malignant tumors. Galen’s term is now used as a part of the name for cancer specialists — oncologists.

Cancer causes: Theories throughout history  Source: American Cancer Society

From the earliest times, physicians have puzzled over the causes of cancer. Ancient Egyptians blamed cancers on the gods.

Hippocrates believed that the body had 4 humors (body fluids): blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When the humors were balanced, a person was healthy. The belief was that too much or too little of any of the humors caused disease. An excess of black bile in various body sites was thought to cause cancer.

This theory of cancer was passed on by the Romans and was embraced by the influential doctor Galen’s medical teaching, which remained the unchallenged standard through the Middle Ages for over 1,300 years. During this period, the study of the body, including autopsies, was prohibited for religious reasons, which limited progress of medical knowledge.



2 thoughts on “The Origin of the Word, “Cancer”

    • I remember being at a “Look Good, Feel Better” class — I know you’re involved in the Canada version of that. It’s a great program! We were each looking through our makeup and someone said, “Oh, I got cancer.” Everyone stopped. Huh? (we already knew we all had cancer.) She showed us the astrological sign on the makeup she got. We burst out laughing.

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