Published April 21, 2022
The concept of cancer was first described by the Egyptians around 3000 BC. Later (around 400 BC), the term “carcinoma” — rooted in the Greek karkinōma, from karkinos (“crab”) and -ōma (“swelling”) — was first used by Hippocrates, known as “the Father of Medicine.” The Roman physician Celsus (28 BC–50 AD) later translated the word into “cancer,” the Latin for “crab.” At that time, little was understood about the disease and there was no treatment. In the eighteenth century, the practice of autopsy by Giovanni Morgagni, of Padua, paved the way for the scientific study of cancer, and in the nineteenth century, Rudolf Virchow’s use of the microscope furthered cancer research. The field of cancer epidemiology also emerged in the eighteenth century, leading to the identification of several important links with environmental and lifestyle exposures. Advancements in cancer therapy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included improvements in surgery, the use of radiation therapy, and the first chemotherapy agents (following the discovery during World War II that nitrogen mustard kills cancer cells). Read more on the history of chemotherapy here.
Since then, the field of oncology has grown rapidly, with refinements in surgical technique and use of less invasive procedures; modifications and innovation in radiation therapy, which is associated with less morbidity; and the development of targeted biologic chemotherapy agents. This vast field covers many organ systems and is constantly changing, with new screening guidelines, diagnostic tests, and drug discoveries.