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History of cancer: An overview of discovery, prevention, and treatment

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Key Takeaways:

  • The history of cancer, as far as we can tell, dates back to 1500 B.C.
  • While genetics do affect cancer risk, external factors such as environment and lifestyle play a significant role.
  • There have been significant advances in immunotherapy and chemotherapy.

From 1500 B.C. to the present day, cancer has been the focus of much investigation.

Fossilized bone tumors and bony skull damage found in Egyptian mummies have provided some of the earliest cancer evidence through the ages.

Evidence of cancer over time.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus, part of an Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery dating circa 1500 B.C., describes breast cancer by citing eight cases of breast tumors and ulcers removed by cauterization. The papyrus concludes, “There is no treatment.”

Hippocrates, considered the Father of Medicine, is responsible for naming cancer, calling it karkinos. He described the tumors, which he thought were crab-shaped, as carcinos and carcinoma.

Believing that the human body comprises four fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, Hippocrates theorized that excess black bile was responsible for cancer.

Celsus, a Roman physician, gave the disease its modern name, cancer, when he translated karkinos to Latin. Galen, also a Roman physician, is responsible for describing the tumors as oncos, the Greek word for swelling, eventually giving rise to the term oncology, the study of cancers.

In the 17th century, the discovery of lymph nodes and the body’s lymphatic system helped replace Hippocrates’ black bile theory as the cause of cancer. Autopsies were the chief means of investigation, and the view became that lymphatic abnormalities caused cancer.

Giovanni Morgagni, in 1761, took autopsies a step further and tied pathological autopsies to the cause of death, paving the way for oncology.

It was John Hunter, a well-known Scottish surgeon who thought doctors could cure cancers through surgery. If a cancer tumor wasn’t metastatic, which he described as “moveable,” surgery was indicated.

Despite these 18th century advances, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Rudolf Virchow realized that cells, even cancer cells, stemmed from other cells. Even as oncology made these early advances, the theories about the cause of cancer were primitive. The ideas included that cancer was caused by parasites and trauma and cancer could spread in the same way as a liquid.

By the 20th century, German surgeon Karl Thiersch recognized that malignant tumors were behind the spread of cancer.

William Stewart Halsted, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, effectively cured breast cancer in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century. When no other effective treatment was available, his radical mastectomy surgery became the standard treatment until the 1970s.

In the 20th century, researchers made tremendous advances in cancer research, identifying carcinogens and developing chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and better diagnostic tools.

The most significant advancement was in understanding the causes of cancer. Researchers have identified the root cause of cancer: mutations in cancer cells’ DNA sequence.

Immunotherapy advancements for cancer patients.

history of cancer: Man wearing eyeglasses

Immunotherapy began its modern advances in the mid-19th century when Fehleisen and Busch, two German physicians, noticed, independently of one another, remarkable tumor regression following an erysipelas infection (a type of bacterial skin infection). It was Busch who first intentionally used erysipelas to treat cancer.

In 1891, William Bradley Coley, known as the “father of immunotherapy,” began trying to use the immune system to treat bone cancer. These achievements were mostly ignored in the subsequent 50 years. In the 1960s, several groundbreaking discoveries in immunology dramatically advanced the research — specifically about T-cells and their role in the immune system.

Researchers have recently received approvals for checkpoint immunotherapies for new cancer types. Other significant achievements have also been made related to cellular immunotherapy, personalized vaccines, and immune-related biomarkers.

Recently, significant advances have been made in immunotherapy, but the underlying mechanisms remain unclear and response rates are limited. However, there has been sustained clinical response to immunotherapy.

The development of radiation therapy.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895 opened the door for radiotherapy as a cancer treatment, for which he received a Nobel Prize in Physics. Roentgens, a legacy unit of measuring X-ray strength, is named for him. A year after Röntgen’s discovery, Emil Herman Grubbe used X-rays to treat breast cancer.

Also, in 1896, Antoine Henri Becquerel began studying radioactivity and researching natural sources of radiation. Two years later, Maria Sklodowska-Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, discovered that radium is a radiation source.

By the early 20th century, X-rays and radium were increasingly used in medicine, most frequently for skin cancer, primarily because of their low tissue penetration. However, ignoring the effects of ionizing radiation  presented negative side effects that outweighed the benefits of the treatment.

With the discovery of new radioactive isotopes, rays, and radiation techniques, scientists better understood radiation and its effects on cell tissue.

As radiotherapy developed, new and better modalities were also developed for different types of cancers, including CT scans and computer-assisted proton beaming.

By the end of the 1900s, sophisticated computer technology helped develop a device to deliver stereotactic radiation therapy, a more efficient and safer treatment.

Breakthroughs in chemotherapy.

At the start of the 20th century, chemotherapy’s genesis came about with the World War II discovery that those exposed to nitrogen mustard (mustine) had notably reduced white blood counts. As a result, researchers investigated whether mustard agents could stop the growth of rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.

Pharmacologists Alfred Gilman and Louis Goodman studied the therapeutic effects of mustard agents in treating lymphoma. With thoracic surgeon Gustaf Lindskog, they injected a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient with mustine.

After World War II, pathologist Sidney Farber investigated folic acid’s anti-cancer properties. With colleagues, he developed folate analogs. In 1948, these antifolates were the first to cause remission in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, potentially restoring normal bone marrow.

Over the next several decades, combination chemotherapy regimens (using more than one chemotherapy medication at a time) gained popularity, leading to additional improvements.

Early detection and chemotherapy led to a decline in cancer death rates.

Causes of cancer.

Woman with grey hair smiling at the camera

While genetic factors play a role in cancer risk, exposure to external sources, such as radiation exposure and viruses, are the cause of many cancers. Research into cancer causes in the last half of the 20th century and early 21st century has proven the linkage.

Tobacco use and cancer.

There is no safe tobacco use. In addition to causing roughly nine out of 10 lung cancers, it can cause cancer elsewhere in the body.

Diet, physical activity, and cancer.

American Cancer Society statistics show that excess body weight correlates with about 11% of American women’s cancers, including breast cancer, and about 5% of cancers in men.

At the same time, the World Cancer Research Fund estimates obesity, inactivity, alcohol consumption, or poor nutrition result in 18% of cancers diagnosed in the United States.

Cancer-causing radiation.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, weaker UVA rays like that caused by power lines or cell phone towers, and more potent UVB rays are linked to skin cancer and skin damage.

Based on historical data from Japan and Chernobyl, high-dose cancer radiotherapy, exposure to high radiation levels in some occupations, X-rays, and gamma rays are known carcinogens.

Viruses and other infections related to the history of cancer.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to cervical cancer and penile cancer. Fortunately, cervical cancer is preventable through routine screening tests.

Although there isn’t a standard screening test for men, lesions that develop mostly under the foreskin are more noticeable early on.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), hepatitis B, and hepatitis C have also been linked to certain cancers and lymphomas.

The history of cancer: A long road of understanding and fighting.

The history of cancer is filled with discovery, speculation, trial, error, and significant advancement in prevention and treatment.

For centuries, research into cancer, its causes, and the treatment of cancer has driven physicians, scientists, and researchers to understand and overcome the disease.

At times primitive, leaders in oncology have been relentless in developing cancer treatments and technologies.

As the population ages, the risk of cancer also rises. Particularly among post-World War II baby boomers, the incidence of cancer is due to increased longevity.

Despite the increase in cancer diagnosis in the last half-century, improvements in cancer screening and treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapies, have led to better survival rates for cancer patients.

Know your risk and take control of your health.

At Ezra, we understand that early detection is cancer’s greatest weakness. That’s why an annual screening with Ezra’s full body MRI scan helps you prepare and get an edge on cancer.

You can join online and book your scan today. If you want to better understand your risk for cancer, you can also take  this five-minute quiz.