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World Cancer Day, 4th Feb

Published: 04 Feb 2014

Cancer can be an extremely aggressive disease that is all too familiar in modern society. Official statistics state that as many as one in three people will develop a form of the condition at some point during their life.

In the UK, the most common forms of the disease are breast, prostate, lung, bowel, bladder and uterine cancer. However, there are in fact over 200 different kinds - all of which boast their own unique methods of diagnosis and treatment.

While many people may think it is a relatively 'modern' illness, this could not be further from the truth. Interestingly, the name itself actually derives from the ancient Greek word for crab - like the star sign - as scientists believed this is what clusters of cancerous cells looked like.

The first recorded description of cancer goes as far back as Ancient Egypt, with a papyrus produced between 3,000 and 1,500 BC that appears to describe breast tumours. Some mummies also show evidence of bone tumours.

A few hundred years later, around 400 BC, it is believed Hippocrates was the first person to make the distinction between benign and malignant tumours. Still to this day, Hippocrates is considered by some to be the original father of modern medicine, with newly-qualified doctors still taking what is known as the Hippocratic Oath in order to practice.

Later, the Greek physician Galen built on Hippocrates' theories and his medical teachings remained unchallenged for several centuries. However, despite these early cases of recognition, advancement in knowledge and treatment of the disease was slow. Of course, there are medical accounts that we can now potentially attribute to the condition, but which at the time were little more than medical mysteries.

In 1775, doctor and writer Dr Percivall Pott made a connection between chimney soot and scrotal cancer. This led to chimney sweeps cleaning themselves more thoroughly, which in turn led to a decline in men developing this form of the disease.

The first cancer hospital was founded in the 18th century in Reims, France, following which the x-ray was discovered in 1895. This radiation is still used in both diagnosis and treatment to the modern day.

However, the major breakthrough in the history of cancer was arguably the discovery of DNA structure in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. This has enabled scientists to garner an insight into cancer on a molecular level and to vastly improve diagnosis and treatment as a result.

With science continually advancing, we are as yet nowhere near close to the end of our journey in understanding, treating and - dare it be mentioned - curing this disease.


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