Paleontologists have found fossils of dinosaurs that had cancer...
Cancer through history timeline
80 million years ago
Dinosaur bone fossils from this period show possible evidence of containing cancerous cells.
~ 500,000 BC
Tumour on bone found belonging to our pre-human ancestors.
Evidence of cancer found in Egyptian mummies from this period.
Egyptian papyruses contain the earliest written records of cancer. There is a description of eight cases of tumours or ulcers of the breast, including whether each is treatable.
Others describe treatments including cutting out with a knife or burning with red-hot irons. Stomach cancer was treated with boiled barley mixed with dates, and cancer of the uterus by a concoction of fresh dates mixed with pig's brain introduced into the vagina.
Evidence of cancer found in mummies of pre-Columbian Incas of Peru.
Hippocrates, the Greek 'Father of Medicine', named a range of tumours, lumps and bumps as carcinos (Greek word meaning crab) and carcinoma. He also attempted to classify tumours.
Roman writer Galen described tumours as cancer because they had roots spreading out like the legs of a crab. He thought cancer was caused by too much black bile in the body, which he thought to be corrosive.
Like the Greeks, the Romans found that some tumours could be removed by surgery and cauterised (burnt), but no medicine seemed to work. They found that surgery sometimes increased the spread of the cancer, or that tumours sometimes grew again.
Hindu physician and surgeon Susrata suggested different treatments for different types of cancer, including no treatment for cancers that had spread. Other treatments included removal with a knife, cautery and corrosive ointments.
500 -1500 AD
Little progress was made in understanding cancer. It was still believed to be caused by too much black bile. Surgery and cautery were used on smaller tumours.
Caustic (burning) pastes were used for control of more extensive cancer. These pastes often contained toxic plant based preparations such as hemlock or metals. Examples of metals included iron, copper, zinc, silver, gold, mercury and particularly lead and arsenic.
Phlebotomy (blood-letting), diet, herbal medicines, powder of crab and other symbolic charms were used.
Autopsies (examining bodies to find out the cause of death) were conducted more often and understanding of internal cancers began to improve.
New theories of cancer began emerging to challenge Galen’s ‘excess of black bile’ idea, including Paracelsus’s theory that concentrations of mineral salts were the cause of cancer.
The development of microscopes and better understanding of cells and the blood and lymphatic systems were major steps in improving understanding of cancer.
Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, and Leeuwenhoek and Malpighi’s inspection of red blood cells under the first microscopes finally proved that black bile did not exist. Descartes developed a ‘sour lump’ theory based on the discovery of the lymph system. He thought a ‘sour lump’ would develop cancer.
Causes for some cancers were suggested. For example, snuff was linked to cancer in the nose and soot to scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps. Some people thought cancer was an infectious disease, or caused by a cancer toxin.
Improved microscopes enabled detailed studies of plant and animal cells and led to an understanding that tissue growth was a result of cell multiplication. Johannes Muller applied this to cancer, and helped establish the concept of cancer as abnormal cell growth.
Subsequently, Virchow contributed to our knowledge of the stages of tumour formation and the structure of the cancer cell. Other researchers showed that cancer cells travelled from one organ to another via the blood or lymph.
Pasteur’s discoveries suggested that germs may be responsible for some cancers. Numerous efforts to prove this in later decades were unsuccessful.
Important discoveries in anaesthetics and control of infection improved surgical methods. Billroth performed a successful operation for stomach cancer and Halsted developed a radical operation for breast cancer.
X-rays were discovered.
The radioactive substance, radium was discovered. It is now used to treat some types of cancer.
Hundreds of materials, both man-made and natural, were recognised as causes of cancer (carcinogens). Improvements were made identifying diseases and the changes those diseases bring about in the body, due to advances in areas of science such as physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology.
Radiotherapy which is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop them dividing was developed as a treatment.
Chemotherapy which is the use of drugs to treat cancer was tested. The first chemotherapy drug was based on mustard gas, that had been used during the war. Chemotherapy drugs are toxic to all cells, not just cancer cells.
Two genes (BRCA1 & BRAC2) are identified that increase the risk of breast cancer.
The human genome is sequenced. Scientists mapped the location of every gene within chromosomes and deciphered the complete sequence of the genome’s 3 billion nucleotides.
Since then, The Cancer Genome Atlas Project is looking to identify the complete set of genes associated with various forms of cancer. The project will produce a list of all mutations associated with cancerous tumours. It will be used to develop new strategies for preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.