History of cancer disease


Table of content

The history of cancer disease goes back to prehistoric times. However, it has become much more prevalent in the past decades due to longer life expectancy and more carcinogenic factors.

The oldest evidence of this disease was found in dinosaur fossils from over 70 million years ago. In humans, the first documented case of cancer is from an Egyptian man who lived approximately 3,000 years ago.

Actually, the first written evidence of cancer is in manuscripts from Ancient Egypt that describe the pharmacological surgical and even magical treatments used then. In papyruses written between 1500 and 1600 BCE, the Egyptians blamed the gods for this disease, which they thought had no cure.

When was cancer first discovered?

The name “cancer” first appeared around 400 BCE and we have Hippocrates to thank for it, a physician from Ancient Greece known as the “Father of Medicine”. According to Hippocrates, the disease was caused by an imbalance of the four humours: blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile.

He coined the terms karkino and carcinoma, deriving from these words the name “cancer” for this type of disease. His followers, the physicians of the Hippocratic school, continued to describe the disease and different ways to treat it. Even at that time, they were able to distinguish between benign and malignant tumours, and to detect their invasive nature.

When was breast cancer discovered?

After the fall of Greco-Roman civilisation, several medical researchers emerged during the Byzantine empire. They discovered the presence of lymph nodes in the chests of women with breast cancer and used poppyseed extracts to fight the pain. They described different types of cancer and started removing tumours, although not very successfully.

Cancer history timeline

Between 500 and 1500 CE, several cancer treatments were developed in Europe, including removal and cauterisation of small tumours, and caustic arsenic pastes, diet, crab powder and amulets for larger tumours. From 1500 CE, autopsies became more common and knowledge of internal cancers grew (remember, before they could only study external tumours).

In the 17th century, there were several notable advances, including the lens microscope, which made it possible to see blood cells and bacteria, and the first successful mastectomies.

Recently, a lot of progress has been made in describing the disease, even proving its genetic origins, which allows patients get personalised treatment and helps choose the most appropriate treatment.

Although the disease hasn’t changed, the incidence of each type of tumour has. Before 1900, lung cancer was very rare and now it is the most commonly diagnosed type of tumour and causes the most deaths.


History of Cancer. The Cancer Atlas.
Faguet GB. A brief history of cancer: age-old milestones underlying our current knowledge database. Int J Cancer. 2015;136(9):2022-2036. doi:10.1002/ijc.29134.

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