Is Cancer a Modern Disease?

The history of cancer is long and complex – and it has a story that is intertwined not only with science but with art, literature, and the human condition as a whole. Since the first record of a tumor in ancient Egypt to the modern use of targeted cancer treatments, we’ve learned a great deal about cancer – how it spreads, how it resists, and how it’s defeated – but we’ve also learned a great deal about ourselves and the strength human resilience.

Ancient History

The earliest recording of a cancer dates back to 1500-3000 B.C. Evidence is written on the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is a portion of an ancient Egyptian text about medical care and surgery. This passage references eight breast tumors doctors took out using cauterization, which is burning the area with an ancient tool. The Egyptian writers state in the papyrus, simply, “There is no treatment.”

Medieval History

It was during the Renaissance that the world saw a surge in interest in the human body, and dissecting it became more standard. But the only treatment for cancer was to surgically remove surface tumors, if possible.

In 1755, British surgeons were the first to pinpoint an environmental cause of cancer – the carcinogens in chimney soot. Chimney sweeps, who spent most of their days covered in soot and climbing through narrow chimneys, showed a much higher prevalence of scrotum cancer than the general population. It was also during this time that a German biologist linked microscopic pathology to cancer.

Modern History

Since 1902 we have made huge strides in our knowledge of cancer, and how to treat it. Theodor Boveri discovered that cancers are mutated chromosomes of a particular sort that could have the unlimited ability to grow and multiply. Throughout the 1900s scientists added more environmental factors and toxins to the list of things that were linked to cancer. In the 30s and 40s we found that one of the biggest causes of cancer was tobacco. Once people gained a deeper understanding of the way cancer worked gave way to the first effective treatments. Surgery wasn’t the only form of treatment. Cancer could also be treated by radiation. Since the 1970s cancer research has expanded significantly, and we know more now than we ever have. Scientists have learned more in the past two decades than all previous centuries combined.
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