Ancient Greeks, Egyptians were no strangers to cancer

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 
photoA 1638 engraving by Peter Paul Rubens of the Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived from 460 to 370 B.C. Hippocrates is credited with naming cancer, because he thought the tendrils on tumors looked like a crab’s legs.

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians were no strangers to breast cancer, even if they weren’t sure exactly what it was.“They were just as smart as we are; they just didn’t have the technology,” said Dr. Toni Storm-Dickerson, a breast surgical oncologist at Compass Oncology. “(The Greeks) were already doing surgery, though, and thinking about what was going on.”

In ancient times, there were no antiseptics, no ability to track disease, no microscopes, no anesthesia and no understanding of genetics.

Cancers would continue to grow until they could be felt or seen. And even then there was little anyone could do other than trying to remove tumors, which would usually just recur.

According to the American Cancer Society’s “The History of Cancer,” the oldest description of breast cancer — or any cancer for that matter — is from an Egyptian papyrus dating to about 1600 B.C. (although the information in the papyrus may date to 3000 B.C.)

The “Edwin Smith Papyrus” describes eight cases of breast cancer that were treated with cauterization. The document also says that “there is no treatment” if tumors have spread over the breast, are cool to the touch and are bulging.

Breast cancer was especially noticeable to the ancients because it’s easier to see than other types of cancer. When the disease goes unchecked, tumors on the breasts grow into visible black lumps.

Early physicians believed a person’s health was associated with the balance of four body fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. If there was too much or too little of those fluids, a person became sick. Because the black tumors would sometimes burst and yield black pus, the ancients associated breast cancer with an overabundance of black bile.

They used purging and bleeding to treat the disease, coupled with remedies including zinc oxide salves, licorice, castor oil and opium.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived from 460 to 370 B.C., is credited with naming the disease.

He noticed that tumors had veiny extensions that reminded him of a crab’s legs. So he used the words carcinos and carcinoma, Greek for crab, to describe the disease. Those words were later translated to cancer, Latin for crab, by the Roman physician Celsus.

Galen, another Greek physician, introduced the word “oncos” (Greek for swelling), as a factor in describing the disease. That became the root of the word oncology.

The ancient theories and treatment methods remained until the 1700s, when the scientific method and the use of autopsies led to a greater understanding of the disease.