Is cancer just a modern disease?
Ever since complex life evolved, it has been susceptible to cancer. Plants can get cancer. Dinosaurs probably suffered from it. It has been around for thousands and thousands of years. It is certainly not a modern disease.
The oldest description of cancer in humans was found in an Egyptian papyrus written between 3000-1500 BC. It referred to tumours of the breast.
Hippocrates - the "Father of Medicine" who lived in Greece around 400 BC - is credited with being the first to recognise the difference between benign and malignant tumours. In fact, the name cancer comes from the ancient Greek word for crab, as scientists at the time thought that clusters of cancer cells looked like the legs of a crab.
But progress on understanding and treating cancer was slow over the next two thousand years.
One of the very first people to suggest a cause for one type of cancer was Dr Percivall Pott, in 1775. Dr Pott noticed that many young boys employed as chimney sweeps went on to develop cancer of the scrotum in later life. He suggested that something in the soot was causing cancer.
At the time no one knew exactly how soot caused this disease, but chimney sweeps were encouraged to wash more thoroughly. As a result, fewer men developed this cancer. A century later, scientists discovered the chemical in soot that causes cancer, proving that Dr Pott's observations were correct.
It was not until the 18th century in Reims, France, that the first cancer hospital was founded, although this was in the mistaken belief that cancer was an infectious disease. The French gynaecologist Recamier described the invasion of the bloodstream by cancer cells in 1839, coining the word metastasis (cancer spread).
A momentous breakthrough in our understanding of cell biology came in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson unravelled the structure of DNA. Since then we have begun to study and understand the causes of cancer at a molecular level, and to devise new treatments based on this knowledge.
The last fifty years have seen an explosion in our understanding of this most fundamental of diseases, and new discoveries are occurring on an almost weekly basis. You can keep up to date with the latest advances in cancer research from our Science Update blog.
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