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History of Cancer:
The medical term for malignant tumors today is carcinoma, it is derived from epithelial cells. It is Celsus who translated carcinos into the Latin cancer, also meaning crab. Galen used “oncos” to describe all tumours, the root for the modern word oncology.
Hippocrates described several kinds of cancers. He called benign tumours oncos, Greek for swelling, and malignant tumours carcinos, Greek for crab or crayfish. This name probably comes from the appearance of the cut surface of a solid malignant tumour, with a roundish hard center surrounded by pointy projections, vaguely resembling the shape of a crab. He later added the suffix -oma, Greek for swelling, giving the name carcinoma. Since it was against Greek tradition to open the body, Hippocrates only described and made drawings of outwardly visible tumors on the skin, nose, and breasts. Treatment was based on the humor theory of four bodily fluids (black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm). According to the patient’s humor, treatment consisted of diet, blood-letting, and/or laxatives. Through the centuries it was discovered that cancer could occur anywhere in the body, but humor-theory based treatment remained popular until the 19th century with the discovery of cells.
Though treatment remained the same, in the 16th and 17th centuries it became more acceptable for doctors to dissect bodies to discover the cause of death. The German professor Wilhelm Fabry believed that breast cancer was caused by a milk clot in a mammary duct. The Dutch professor Francois de la Boe Sylvius, a follower of Descartes, believed that all disease was the outcome of chemical processes, and that acidic lymph fluid was the cause of cancer. His contemporary Nicolaes Tulp believed that cancer was a poison that slowly spreads, and concluded that it was contagious.
With the widespread use of the microscope in the 18th century, it was discovered that the ‘cancer poison’ spread from the primary tumor through the lymph nodes to other sites (“metastasis”). The use of surgery to treat cancer had poor results due to problems with hygiene. The renowned Scottish surgeon Alexander Monro (1697-1767) saw only 2 breast tumor patients out of 60 surviving surgery for two years. In the 19th century, asepsis improved surgical hygiene and as the survival statistics went up, surgical removal of the tumor became the primary treatment for cancer. With the exception of William Coley who in the late 1800s felt that the rate of cure after surgery had been higher before asepsis (and who injected bacteria into tumors with mixed results), cancer treatment became dependent on the individual art of the surgeon at removing a tumor. During the same period, the idea that the body was made up of various tissues, that in turn were made up of millions of cells, laid rest the humor-theories about chemical imbalances in the body. The age of cellular pathology was born.
When Marie Curie and Pierre Curie discovered radiation at the end of the 19th century, they stumbled upon the first effective non-surgical cancer treatment. With radiation came also the first signs of multi-disciplinary approaches to cancer treatment. The surgeon was no longer operating in isolation, but worked together with hospital radiologists to help patients. The complications in communication this brought, along with the necessity of the patient’s treatment in a hospital facility rather than at home, also created a parallel process of compiling patient data into hospital files, which in turn led to the first statistical patient studies.
Cancer patient treatment and studies were restricted to individual physicians’ practices until WWII, when medical research centers discovered that there were large international differences in disease incidence. This insight drove national public health bodies to make it possible to compile health data across practises and hospitals, a process that many countries do today. The Japanese medical community observed that the bone marrow of bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was completely destroyed. They concluded that diseased bone marrow could also be destroyed with radiation, and this led to the discovery of bone marrow transplants for leukemia. Since WWII, trends in cancer treatment are to improve on a micro-level the existing treatment methods, standardize them, and globalize them as a way to find cures through epidemiology and international partnerships.