Cancer basics: History, types, treatments and more

New cancer treatments are developed as cancer research progresses. But ever wonder how cancer came to be or how it was identified in the past? Well, cancer seems to have been around as long as humans have.

“Some of the earliest evidence of cancer is found among fossilized bone tumors, human mummies in ancient Egypt, and ancient manuscripts,” provides the American Cancer Society. The earliest known description of cancer was in Egypt around 3000BC. The word cancer itself is credited to Hippocrates.

According to Dr. Ananya Mandal, MD, in 1761 Giovanni Morgagni regularized autopsies for determining cause of death which laid the foundation for the study of cancers.

About a century later, the development of anesthesia allowed for surgery to remove cancers that did not yet spread. In the 19th century, Rudolf Virchow founded a way to study cancer under the microscope.

There were also various theories as to what caused cancer. This included the humoral theory, lymph theory, the theory that cancer was contagious, the chronic irritation theory, that it came from blastema, came from other cells, or came from trauma. What humankind has known of cancer has constantly been evolving it seems.

After the 1920s, we began to make some real concrete progress. Ways of screening and detection came about, namely Pap tests and mammograms. Treatments also improved as technologies advanced.

Common types of cancer include breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer. The American Cancer Society lists over 50 types of cancer.

Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control, keeps growing, and making new cells. They can spread and push out normal cells. The rate at which these cells spread depends on the type of cancer. The best course of treatment also depends on the type of cancer.

The most common types of cancer treatment include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.


Surgery was really the only practiced treatment for cancer until radiation was discovered in the 19th century by Marie and Pierre Curie. Radiation therapy became the first effective non-surgical method of treating cancer and was often used in combination with surgery.

As time went on, cancer foundations were established and more and more research was published. After World War II, medical research became even less restricted.

“Since WWII, trends in cancer treatment are to improve on a micro-level the existing treatment methods, standardize them, and globalize them to find cures through epidemiology and international partnerships,” according to Wikipedia. There was even a proclaimed “war on cancer” in the 70s.

Mayo Clinic says the goal of cancer treatment is to achieve a cure for a person’s cancer, in order to allow them to live a normal life span. They say cancer treatments are either used as primary treatment, adjuvant treatment, or palliative treatment.

Primary treatment is to remove or kill cancer cells entirely.

Adjuvant treatment is to kill any remaining cancer cells after primary treatment.

Palliative treatment is meant to ease side effects of treatment or symptoms from cancer.

Available treatment options vary depending on a person’s type and stage of cancer. Options include:

  • Surgery — Removes cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy — Uses drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation — Kills cancer cells through the use of high-powered energy beams
  • Bone marrow transplant — Allows your doctor to use higher doses of chemotherapy or can be used to replace diseased bone marrow
  • Immunotherapy — Uses your bodies immune system to fight cancer; helps you immune system recognize cancer as an intruder so that it can attack it
  • Hormone therapy — Removes or blocks hormones that fuel some types of cancer
  • Radiofrequency ablation — Uses electrical energy through needle insertion to heat up and kill cancer cells
  • Clinical trials — Studies testing new ways of treating cancer

The National Cancer Institute also talks about targeted therapy and precision medicine as treatments.

Dr. Jason Fung says nutrition has also been linked to cancer. People believed that they could prevent cancer by taking fat out of their diets.

“As it became clear that environmental influences affect cancer rates, the prime suspect was the diet,” he says. “The natural question, therefore, was what specific part of the diet is responsible. The immediate suspect was dietary fat.”

Turns out there was no real ground to this though. Because of this belief, a trial was done to evaluate dietary fat’s effect on weight gain, heart health, and breast cancer. Well, after about eight years nothing was proven except that there was no link.

Eventually, thoughts moved to other nutrition possibilities such as lack of certain nutrients like fiber. This had no definitive proof either. This same pattern continued with studies on B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin E, and beta carotene. Some of the studies that increased the intake of such nutrients actually increased participant’s risk of getting cancer. So these are things we now know are not ways of treating cancer.

“Knowing what cancer is NOT clears the path to further research into what cancer actually IS,” Fung says. So “stay tuned.”


A cause of some cancers are genetic mutations and abnormalities, or it’s at least a theory (Somatic Mutation Theory). Fung claims the most famous cancer-related gene is p53. But it is not yet known what drives those mutations.

According to All About Cancer, “Cancer is caused by accumulated damage to genes.” There are certain factors that can increase cancer risk like:

  • Biological or internal factors (age, gender, inherited defects, and skin type)
  • Environmental exposure (radon, UV radiation, etc.)
  • Occupational risks (carcinogens, chemicals, harmful materials)
  • Lifestyle factors (tobacco and alcohol use, UV radiation from sunlight)
  • Bacteria and viruses (HBV, HCV, HPV, EBV)
  • Drug use (antineoplastic agents, certain hormones, medicine that cause immune deficiency)

To expand on lifestyle, daily habits really can make a difference. The American Cancer Society says research has shown that poor diet and inactivity are key players in increasing cancer risk.

Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight by being physically active regularly and making healthy food choices can help reduce cancer risk.


The signs and symptoms of cancer can be caused by tumors or pressure. Symptoms vary depending on the type and stage of cancer.

For example, pancreatic cancer may cause back pain or belly pain once it becomes large enough. Cancer that grows around the bile duct can cause jaundice.

Some cancers can cause fever, fatigue, weight loss, blood clots, raised blood calcium levels, weakened muscles, coughing, pain, skin changes, and more. Many of these symptoms are more likely to happen due to other issues and might be overlooked.

Even if you don’t find cancer, getting prolonged or serious symptoms checked by a doctor could still help. If you are experiencing any worsening or persisting symptoms, it’d be a good idea to find out if anything detrimental is going on with your health. It could save your life.



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