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The History of Cancer



Cancer has most probably existed since the origin of mankind. The first known descriptions of cancer date back to earliest Antiquity !

Some Etymology !

Hippocrates (460-370 BC)

Described cancer in detail and used the Greek terms "carcinos" and "carcinoma" to refer to chronic ulcers or growths that seemed to be malignant tumours and "squirr(h)e" to refer to a type of cancer (epithelium) with a hard consistency due to the predominance of a sclerosis with a tissue retraction.

According to the A. Bailly Dictionary, both Greek terms respectively mean :
- "carcinos" : 1) crayfish, 2) canker, cancer, tumour
- "skirros" : as a noun : solid tumour; as an adjective : hard, hardened.


Celsus (28 BC - 50 AC),

A Roman doctor, translated the Greek word "carcinos" into the word "cancer", a Latin word meaning: 1) crab, crayfish, dunce and 2) cancer, canker. However, he introduced the Greek word "carcinoma" as such in Latin.
The term "cancer" rather referred to ulcers that looked malignant with a deep penetration, whereas the term "carcinoma" rather referred to more superficial premalignant and malignant lesions.
There was a theory that claimed that the form of some cancerous lesions recalled the form of a crab. This explains the origin of the words "carcinos" and "cancer" to refer to these diseases.
The Greek term "cacoethes", used as such in Latin by Celsus to refer to early-stage tumours, means "pernicious, malignant" when it is used as an adjective in medical French and "tumour that is hard to distinguish from carcinoma" when used as a noun.
"Cacoethes" comes from the Greek word "cacos" and means "bad, dirty".


Galien (130-200)

He used the Greek term "oncos" to refer to a growth or a tumour that looked malignant.

Only few new terms were introduced to refer to these growths and tumours.
At the beginning of the 19th century "carcinoma" became a synonym of "cancer" and the ending "-oma" was used to designate some cancerous lesions.

Hence, the word "cancer" is very old. However, it has no scientific meaning in the nomenclature of diseases. Indeed, it is used for a large number of different diseases with a variety of aetiologies and appearances that require different cares and treatments. The prognosis after the treatment is also very different. Moreover, the word "cancer" had been associated with suffering and death for a very long time, and nowadays it has still a very pejorative connotation.
The modern trend is to use the designation "oncological diseases" more rightly.
In fact, oncology is the science that studies the nature, the aetiology, the prevention, the diagnosis, the treatment, the recovery and palliative care of the range of diseases called "cancer".
Oncology includes surgery, medical oncology (internal medicine), radiotherapy, anatomical pathology, and nowadays clinical and fundamental research. Consequently, an oncologist can not work alone, since he is part of a multidisciplinary team in which everybody has to have a thorough knowledge of all the other disciplines related to the study of cancer.

To access other sections of this text click on the links below :
• Introduction : see text above
• History : until 1200 A.C. : click here
• History : from 1300 to 1600 A.C. : click here
• History : from 1700 to 1900 A.C. : click here
• Conclusion : click here


Main sources of the text are :
- "The Theory and Practice of Oncology - Historical evolution and present principles" by Ronald W. Raven - Edition : The Parthenon Publishing Group - 1990 (Lancs - England / Park Ridge, New Jersey - USA)
- "Histoire du Cancer" (review "Histoire" n°74) by Marie-José Imbault-Huart


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