Gr. carcinos/carcinoma = crab.
Human beings and other animals have had cancer throughout recorded history. So it’s no surprise that from the dawn of history people have written about cancer. Some of the earliest evidence of cancer is found among fossilized bone tumors, human mummies in ancient Egypt, and ancient manuscripts. Growths suggestive of the bone cancer called osteosarcoma have been seen in mummies. Bony skull destruction as seen in cancer of the head and neck has been found, too.
Our oldest description of cancer (although the word cancer was not used) was discovered in Egypt and dates back to about 3000 BC. It’s called the Edwin Smith Papyrus and is a copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. It describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were removed by cauterization with a tool called the fire drill. The writing says about the disease, “There is no treatment.”
Origin of the word cancer
The origin of the word cancer is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who is considered the “Father of Medicine.” Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumors. In Greek, these words refer to a crab, most likely applied to the disease because the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer called to mind the shape of a crab. The Roman physician, Celsus (28-50 BC), later translated the Greek term into cancer, the Latin word for crab. Galen (130-200 AD), another Greek physician, used the word oncos (Greek for swelling) to describe tumors. Although the crab analogy of Hippocrates and Celsus is still used to describe malignant tumors, Galen’s term is now used as a part of the name for cancer specialists – oncologists.