Science Diction: The Origin Of The Word 'Cancer'

Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates is said to have named masses of cancerous cells karkinos — Greek for crab. Science and medical historian Howard Markel discusses a few hypotheses on why Hippocrates named the disease after a crab, and how well cancer was understood in the ancient world.

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Unidentified Man: The alphabet has only 26 letters. With these 26 magic symbols, however, millions of words are written every day.

IRA FLATOW, host:

And that means it's time for that little jingle, time for our episode of Science Diction on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, and we're going to be talking with Howard Markel. Hi, Howard.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (History of Medicine, University of Michigan): Hi, Ira. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: We always talk about, Howard, every week about the origin of scientific words. This month, Howard, what kind of word do you have for us today?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, keeping with the theme of scary things, it's the word that was - it was and remained scary to a lot of people, the C word, cancer.

FLATOW: Hmm. Well, wow. Yeah. Well, I know it's a constellation, right? Has anything to do with that?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, it is a constellation. But before that, it was and is a crab. And, you know, when you're starting with medical origins, it's a good bet to start with Hippocrates because he was around very early. And some time about 400 B.C., he was examining many cancer patients with what we'd call today end-stage cancer.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MARKEL: And he applied the Greek word karkinos, which means crab. A lot of explanations, all of them equally wonderful and all of them equally difficult to prove, but why did he use that? And if you examine a tumor, if you actually feel malignant tumor, you'll note that it's hard as a rock. And so some have explained that it reminded him of the hard shell of a crab. But others have said it may remind him of - may have reminded him of the pain that a malignant tumor induces. It's much like the sharp pinch of a crab's claw. And an even better version is that it suggests the tenacity with which, you know, a crab bites you...

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Dr. MARKEL: ...and refuses to let go. And that reminded Hippocrates and other doctors how stubborn these things were to remove.

FLATOW: I got you. We're talking about word origins on SCIENCE Friday from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Howard Markel. And so you have those three main definitions...

Dr. MARKEL: Right.

FLATOW: ...of how they are originated.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. And then later on, you know - now, Hippocrates, of course, thought tumors were - malignant tumors were caused by something else, an overabundance of black bile, which by the way, doctors for the next thousands (unintelligible) did that. But he was seeing a lot of tumors, as per other doctors of the ancient world, that were malignant. You know, breast and uterine, mouth, skin cancer and so on. And their best advice to those people was to tell them, basically, to go home and die.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. MARKEL: About 47 A.D., however, the Greco-Roman philosopher Celsus -he was not a doctor, but he wrote a very important encyclopedia of medicine - he named it cancer, because that's the Latin equivalent of crab and so the word remains to this day.

And then about 100 years later, another very famous doctor named Galen extended that Hippocratic metaphor even further. He was dissecting on a breast tumor. He noticed all the veins and tributaries of malignancy around that mass, and he said it looks just like a crab's legs extending outward from every part of its body.

And so the term really stuck. Even though doctors for many hundreds of years didn't really know what caused it or to distinguish it from many other diseases that also had oozing, non-healing sores and things like that.

FLATOW: Hmm. Now, there's a word related to cancer and of course, it's oncology.

Dr. MARKEL: Right. In fact, we called doctors to this day, oncologists. And that's another Hippocratic term onkos, is a Greek word, and it simply means masses. The - I think that's probably a lot better word than cancerologist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MARKEL: And that stuck, as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And just speaking of how people used to talk about cancers, I remember from way back, people were actually afraid to use the C word.

Dr. MARKEL: Absolutely. I mean, I remember as a boy, when family members had cancer, they would often - adults would whisper it or call it the C word. And, you know, that's a wonderful change over time piece of evidence there, is that for, you know, thousands of years, cancer was a death sentence for those who were unfortunate enough to get it.

And now, as time has moved on and we've gotten so much better, not only at diagnosing and distinguishing it, but treating it - and there's hundreds of forms of cancer - it's no longer that death sentence. In fact, there are many, you know, millions of people who have survived cancer. So it's become something that we can talk about more openly...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. MARKEL: ...even though it's still around the crabby word.

FLATOW: Yeah. In those mysterious days, where did people think cancers came from? How did you get cancer?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, that's just a host of things. You know, imbalance of the four humors in the antiquity. Some people in the middle ages in the Renaissance Period thought it was for the sins they committed against their god, that they somehow deserved it.

By the 1850s, pathologists started looking at tumor cells. You know, we talked about the origin of the word cell a few weeks ago. And they were looking at cancer cells and they were fascinated by the fact that they proliferate uncontrollably and they destroy healthy tissue and spread. And so we started thinking about the cellular mechanisms, beginning in the 1850s, 1860s, but it's a really reach zenith in the last 10 or 20 years. And we can only expect better and better information...

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. MARKEL: ...as time goes on.

FLATOW: Howard, thank you very much as always. We'll see you next month.

Dr. MARKEL: Okay. Have a good weekend, Ira.

FLATOW: You too. Howard Markel is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

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