You Wanted to Know: History of Cancer

As a cardiac surgeon, I don’t work with cancer patients very often. However, we all know cancer’s deadly and devastating effects. Yet, with the advent of new treatments, chemotherapies and surgeries, many may not know that cancer has long plagued the human race.


Humans (and even animals) have had cancer throughout recorded history. Descriptions of conditions that sound like cancer have been observed in ancient writings, the oldest coming from an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery, which was written around 3000 BC. It describes eight cases of breast tumors that they attempted to treat by burning with a fire drill.

Other early evidence of cancer comes from fossilized bone tumors and from human mummies in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have found growths evident of bone tumors. Other types of cancer also probably existed, but the evidence has probably been decimated.

The American Cancer Society reports on our long and complicated history of cancer – from our developing knowledge of the human body during the Renaissance era to our first chemotherapy drugs in the 1950s. My guess is that history will continue to radically evolve and change with time. Three hundred years from now, future historians and doctors may look back at our current cancer treatments with shock and even consider them barbaric.