You’ve been diagnosis with cancer; perhaps you are the first in your family. Thinking about cancer was not something you spent anytime doing. Now it occupies your every waking moment. Asking friends and acquaintances it seems as if cancer is now everywhere. Everyone you know has a family member or family friend who has had or succumbed to cancer. You don’t recall a single fact about cancer from any of the history classes in high school. Is the incidence of cancer increasing? Did cancer even exist 100 years ago, a thousand years ago?
The first recorded description of cancer was in the ancient Egyptian records nearly 4000 years ago. The Egyptian records describe a mass in a women’s breast in detail and even discussed treatment. The scribe wrote, “There is none”.
The ancient Greek Hippocrates also described cancer in his writings 2400 years ago. His description of cancer and comparison of the tumors to crabs lead to the term we still use today, carcinoma, derived from the Greek word karkinos. The Greeks performed surgery and discussed how finding tumors small lead to a chance for cure. Sound familiar?
In the Middle Ages cancer was thought to be caused by black bile. Patients under went routine bleedings and purges to maintain their health. Tumors were cut out; acid and fire were than used prior to wrapping with leather bindings.
In the mid 18th century autopsy was first used routinely, allowing first a better description of the cause of death, later a diagnosis as to the cause of death. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries advances were made in sanitation, vaccination, antibiotics, refrigeration, sterile technique…all the things we associate with “civilization”. These changes shifted the balance of man’s enemies from outside the body to inside. Cancer existed, has always existed, but was markedly overshadowed by infectious disease prior to the 20th century. Most individuals died of diseases like TB, Cholera, smallpox, and plague. Cancer is also age related. As an example, the risk of breast cancer is one in 400 for a 30-year-old woman but increases to one in nine for a 70 year old. Prior to the 20th century most people did not live long enough to get cancer. In the US last year 600,00, and 7 million worldwide died of cancer. Twenty five percent of deaths in the US are attributable to cancer. During the 20th century the diseases that we succumbed to are heart disease and cancer.
Dr. Kris Gast is a Board Certified Radiation Oncologist who has been in practice 21 years, the last 13 years at Fort Smith Radiation Oncology.