Tahlequah Daily Press

October 8, 2013

Cancer treatments date back millennia

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Modern treatments for cancer are the result of scientific discoveries made within the last couple of centuries, but cancer is not a new malady – and people have fought it throughout recorded history.

Humans have been aware of cancer for at least 3,500 years. The earliest documentation comes from Egyptian hieroglyphics dating to 1500 B.C.

A piece of papyrus tells of eight cases of breast tumors, which were excised and the wounds cauterized. It is also explained that the tumors are not treatable and must be removed. The early Egyptians might have been able to distinguish malignant tumors from benign, and blame for cancer fell on their gods.

The entomology of the word cancer begins with the Greek physician Hippocrates, for whom the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors is named. He called the tumors “karkinos,” and his writings indicate he believed the cause was excess “black bile” at the site of the tumor.

The belief that excess body fluid caused tumors persisted into the middle ages - the English called it “humour” - and beyond. A result was a treatment called blood-letting, practiced for thousands of years.

“Bile wasn’t just blamed for cancer,” said Kenneth Gibson, a doctor of osteopathic medicine for the NeoHealth clinic in Hulbert. “It could be blamed for almost anything. So leeches were attached or blood was dripped from the arm. As a treatment, it was almost always useless and potentially dangerous. You could die of a sore throat.”

A blood-letting might be performed by anybody - a monk, farmer or barber. George Washington underwent blood-letting shortly before his death in 1799. The practice did not fully fall out of favor with western medicine until the 19th Century.

In the 17th Century, the practice of autopsy produced tremendous leaps in understanding of the human body and its maladies. Recognition of the lymphatic system gave rise to the theory that cancer was caused by abnormal lymph function. It was also understood that early detection and surgical removal of a tumor might prevent the spread of cancer.

An account from France by a woman named Fanny Burney tells of a mastectomy performed in 1811 - her own. The procedure was effected by Napoleon’s surgeon, Baron Larrey. Her writing is graphic, for she was without anesthetic and conscious during the 20-minute surgery, except a couple of brief periods when she fainted.

“Yet - when the dreadful steel was plunged into my breast - cutting through veins - arteries - flesh - nerves - I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries,” she wrote. “I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision - & almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still!”

Johannes Muller, a German pathologist, in 1838 proved that cancers are comprised of cells and proposed the cells arose from elements he called “blastema” between healthy tissues.

In the 1850s, the German doctor Rudolf Virchow, a Muller prodigy and pioneer in the study of cell function, identified leukemia cells using a microscope. Though some of his theories have since been disproved, his linking of cancer to cell behavior laid the foundation for modern understanding of the disease.

He also demonstrated that cells were created by other cells, and did not spontaneously spring into existence under certain conditions.