The Long and Winding Road: Humanity’s Millennia-Long Relationship with Cancer

Unsplash. (2018). Books. photograph, Hudson.

In the 21st century, most of us know what cancer is: a collection of related diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth (1). We know what to think when we hear the word, and we know these diseases do to the body, to families and to societies. But how did Ancient or even Prehistoric humans explain it without our advantage of modern science? Did they think it was a prophetic message from the gods? A manifestation of some internal and abstract quality of the patient? In honour of the annual World Cancer Day on February 4th, let us explore humanity’s millennia-long relationship with cancer. As it turns out, we ought to give the Ancients more credit—while they did not have 21st century technologies or our repository of accumulated scientific knowledge, across the globe and across cultures they observed and recorded a massive amount of medical knowledge, including some on the group of diseases we now call cancer.

The term “cancer”, in fact, comes from such a society. Like much of English vocabulary, it can be traced back to Ancient Greece, and like much of current medical tradition, it is said to trace back to the “Father of Medicine” Hippocrates (c. 460 BC - 375 BC), of (eponymous) Hippocratic Oath fame. He used karcinos and karcinoma to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumours; supposedly, these Greek words meaning “crab” refer to the finger-like projections found in cancerous disease (1). A later Greek physician named Celsus (c. 25 BC - 50 AD) is credited with his use of oncos, the Greek word for swelling, which is now found in the English word for the study of cancer: oncology (1). Of course, this certainly does not mean that cancer did not exist before 460 BC. Indeed, pre-historic evidence of cancer has been found in the form of tumour masses fossilized in human bones (2) Moreover, when the Edwin Smith Papyrus was discovered in the 19th century, this Ancient Egyptian medical text from 1500 BC was found to make mention of what was likely breast cancer: a tumour in the anterior chest that is cool to touch and bulging (2). In Asia, a famous scholar of the Eastern Jin Dynasty in China named Ge Hong (c. 283 AD - 343 AD) also wrote about breast cancer in his medical writings, describing “a lump, hard as stone, with a form resembling a walnut” (3). Regardless of geographical and cultural variance, most ancient societies agreed on one thing: once diagnosed with cancer, there is no cure. But that is not to say that cures were not attempted. As we look into the past, one cannot help but appreciate humanity’s curiosity and tenacity in the face of the unknown. Despite the mystery surrounding a great number of diseases, symptoms were recorded, patterns were noted, and cures were attempted across the globe. It is easy enough in the present to marvel at the distances that humanity has metaphorically and literally travelled, but it is even more thrilling to see how people of the past overcame challenges shrouded in the shadows of uncertainty. Considering the current state of the world, one might find some much-needed comfort in this.

From the advanced techniques and technologies that make modern research possible to the rise of international scientific collaboration, it is amazing to consider how the world has changed since the time of Hippocrates and Celsus. Humanity has yet to find a true cure for cancer, but there are treatments, from immunotherapy to chemotherapy, and programs, such as support groups, to guide families through the challenging process—all of which the people of the past would have certainly envied. It is possible, though, that the Ancient societies simply did not think about cancerous diseases as much as we do in the 21st century—not simply because there was so much unknown about the disease, but also because cancer is more common now than it was in the past, due to a combination of increases in lifespan, risky behaviour and presence of carcinogens in daily life (2). Even so, it is fascinating to consider the progress that humanity has achieved in medicine along this millennia-long road and to wonder at the stretch ahead.


  1. The History of Cancer | First Cancer Diagnosis [Internet]. [cited 2021 Feb 21]. Available from:

  2. Faguet GB. A brief history of cancer: Age-old milestones underlying our current knowledge database. Int J Cancer. 2015;136(9):2022–36.

  3. Yan S-H. An early history of human breast cancer: West meets East. Chin J Cancer. 2013 Sep;32(9):475–7.

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