The term “cancer” evokes thoughts of fear and death. The “Big C” is one of the most dreaded diagnoses in all of the medicine. Even celebrities like Angelina Jolie have taken drastic steps to avoid the possibility of developing breast cancer if they are at high risk, by choosing to electively and preventively have a double mastectomy.
Just today the comedian and actor Ben Stiller came out with the fact that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014. It turned out that the PSA screening blood test for prostate cancer had alerted his physician and the cancer was caught early before it could spread. He said he felt lucky to be alive and then wanted to learn more about the disease. Now it has been two years since his diagnosis, and he is “cancer free.”So what is the definition of cancer and how long has it existed?
The term cancer is derived from the Greek word for crab “karkinos,” and there is evidence of descriptions of cancer even 2500 years ago. Apparently Hippocrates known as the “Father of Modern Medicine” in the year 400 BC (2417 years ago) thought either that cancerous tumors were often hard like the shell of a crab, or that he observed that cancer often spread the same way a creeping, crawling crab moved, and so he named the disease cancer “karkinos”.
Eventually, the term “karkinos” was translated into Latin in 47 AD by the Greek philosopher Celsus to the term we recognize today as “cancer.”
All of the organs of the body are made up of unique cells. In cancer, there is basically wild cell growth in a specific organ of the body that is out of control. Cancer cells respect no boundaries that normally exist between cells and pile on top of each other eventually forming a tumor mass.
The cells can also have bizarre sizes and shapes. These areas of cancer can either remain in the organ where it originated or spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic systems to another area of the body which is called “metastasis.” It is thought that mutations in genes can either increase the rate at which cells divide or inhibit the normal control mechanisms that regulate the growth cycle of the cell.
According to the American Cancer Society (Cancer Facts and Figures 2016), the most common type of cancer in the United States is breast cancer followed by lung cancer and prostate cancer.
Treatments for cancer include chemotherapy which destroys cancer cells but often has severe side effects such as nausea, hair loss, and suppression of the immune system.
New cancer treatments include “targeted” drug therapy which acts on specific target molecules associated with the cancer cell to block abnormal cellular growth.
Written by – James D. Okun
James D. Okun, MD is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He is the author of Erasing Scars: Herpes and Healing and of The History of New Innovations in Modern Medicine.