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What Ancient Greek Physicians Knew About Cancer

tromaktikoCancer, one of the biggest plagues of modern societies, presents a historical record of interest among scientists around the world being a disease that has rapidly spread in the last centuries, but also known to early human civilizations.
Cancer has been identified in ancient Greece thousands of years ago with physicians of the time making realistic descriptions of tumors, but also fruitless efforts to treat the disease. A 2010 extensive study on Egyptian mummies’ tissues showed that only one case among hundreds has been verified as related to cancer and that the ancient Greeks were the first to identify it as a distinct illness, with Hippocrates (410-360 BC) “the father of medicine” giving it the name by which the Western world refers to it to date.

Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) described several kinds of cancer, referring to them with the Greek word carcinos (meaning crab or crayfish), among others. This name comes from the appearance of the cut surface of a solid malignant tumor, with “the veins stretched on all sides as the animal the crab has its feet, whence it derives its name”. Since it was against Greek tradition to open the body, Hippocrates only described and made drawings of outwardly visible tumors on the skin, nose, and breasts. Treatment was based on the humor theory of four bodily fluids (black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm). According to the patient’s humor, treatment consisted of diet, blood-letting, and/or laxatives. Through the centuries it was discovered that cancer could occur anywhere in the body, but humor-theory based treatment remained popular until the 19th century with the discovery of cells.

Celsus (ca. 25 BC – 50 AD) translated carcinos into the Latin cancer, also meaning crab. Galen (2nd century AD) called benign tumors oncos, Greek for swelling, reserving Hippocrates’ carcinos for malignant tumors. He later added the suffix -oma, Greek for swelling, giving the name carcinoma.

According to Hippocrates, cancer was the result of an excess in black bile in any possible body site. If the spleen failed to clear out this bile, the patient would develop some kind of cancer. The physicians of the time described different cancer types, including the hidden and obvious one, the acquired and non-acquired type, as well as the tumor sizes differing from as small as an eyeball to as big as a melon. The ancient Greeks had even noticed the presence of vascular dilatation in cases of cancer. As Galen also pointed out in his work, the most common types of cancer were the uterus and breast cancer found in women. As G.C. Kuehn notes, Hippocrates had also described in the early symptoms of cancer a bitter taste in the mouth that would be accompanied by a loss of appetite.

During examination of the patient the physicians noticed that the carcinomas tumor was palpable and somewhat hard to the touch, irregular in shape, adherent to the surrounding tissue with dilatation of the veins, rather cool in temperature and sometimes sores would build up in the surrounding area. It also caused swelling and in duration of the adjacent lymph nodes and was not accompanied by fever. Another characteristic symptom of cancer was recorded to be pain and bleeding.

As regards the treatment which was followed by the ancient Greek physicians in cases of cancer, in the early stages of development of they applied various medical solutions and drugs, and if they failed to help the patient then they proceeded with surgical treatment. In order to let go of the malignant black bile they performed phlebotomy, the juices and fruits of a series of herbs, and finally the removal through surgery of the tumor, if possible, and the cauterization of the surrounding vessels to stop excessive and dangerous hemorrhage. After surgery, the patient had to follow a particular health boosting diet and exercise program to feel better. However, the vast number of medicines used indicates that ancient doctors already knew how very low the chances were for a cancer patient to survive the illness.

(With information from Professor Aristotle Kouzis’ book (1872-1961) on cancer in ancient Greece and how the physicians of the time handled the illness (original title in Greek: Ο καρκίνος παρά τοις αρχαίοις Έλλησιν ιατροίς). The book was first published almost a century ago but was reissued due to its major level of informativity.)

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