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A quick history of Cancer and chemo: Carcinogenic Cliff Notes

November 9, 2013

As I work on polishing my presentations based on my battle with testicular cancer and the book I wrote, Today Cancer Tomorrow The World, I felt I had to learn more about the history of the disease and some current statistics to give people information and hope.

In 400 BC Hippocrates gives cancer it’s namer. Karkinos, in Greek it means crab. Why crab? The clutch of swollen blood vessels around the tumor reminded him of a crab dug into the sand with its legs spread in a circle.

Since Hippocrates’s world of reference was the fluid mechanics of his world, waterwheels, valves, chambers, sluices, canal digging, hydraulics as an interpretation was used to explain illness in the body. The fluids were called “humors” and broken down into four categories: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm (later used to create the formation of Yiddish: a joke).

In 160 AD,  Claudius Galen, a doctor who practiced in Rome around 160 and for several centuries his influence perpetuated cancer was a “black bile.” Later this theory would be applies to depression. Melancholia, the name for medieval depression–as if being in the Middle Ages wasn’t enough of a reason–it drew its name from the Greek “medas” meaning “black,” and “khole” meaning “hole.”

How other cancer-related words received their origins:

  • Oncology also gots its name in Greek from the word, onkos for “mass” or “burden”  which is how a tumor was described. Onkos was also the name of a tragic mask an actor wore during plays
  • Metastasis: “Meta” and “statis” mean “beyond stillness.”
  • Lukemia: “Lukos” means white, and when someone had lukemia their blood would be populated and overrun by white, milky cells.

The belief illness was based in “humors” was challenged in the mid-1500’s by a medical student, Andreas Vesalius, who by doing various autopsies ( Autopsy is Greek “to see for oneself”) on dead bodies top draw veins and nervous systems could find no evidence of a black bile that killed people. But nothing much was done about it.

Curing cancer through “Radical surgery

Between 1846 and 1867, with the advent of anesthesia and antiseptics to seal wounds, surgery became the main way to deal with cancer.

Radical: a Latin word means “root”and  was used in terms as “radical surgery,” meaning the belief that surgery could pull the “root” of cancer from the body. The surgeons ruled cancer treatment erroneously believing the more organs they removed along with the tumor would cure cancer by uprooting it.

William Seward Halsted trumpeted radical surgery to remove cancer, His theory created an arrogant cult of surgeons that dominated the field from the late 1800’s well into the early 1900’s. Some of these men considered themselves artists by how much they could remove from the body, leaving many people deformed. These arrogant surgeons criticized anyone who suggested that maybe only the tumor had to removed in some cases, and that regardless of how many organs or bones (sometimes shoulder blades and collarbones were removed), once cancer had spread to other parts of the body it was useless.

In 1924, a surgeon named Geoffrey Keynes discovered that radiation couple with minor surgery could cure cancer. The surgeons mocked him, calling what he did a “lumpectomy,” and continued to hack apart women. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that surgeons accepted Keynes theory.


In 1895, the X-ray was discovered Wilhelm Rontgen by accident.  In Paris the Curie’s uncovered radium. Madame Curie named it radium from the Greek word “light.” It was discovered that radium was attacking the cells ability to multiply and divide (it messed with its DNA). They figured this out because radium exposure went after rapidly proliferating cells in the skin, nails, gums and blood (in fact, Madame Curie became anemic because radium burned through to her bone marrow where white blood cells are reproduced; she also died of leukemia; her husband died too, but got hit by a car.)

In 1896, a Chicago medical student, Emil Grubbe created an x-ray tube that he discovered killed tumors. But his conclusion was simple. The X-ray could target a specific area, but could go after cancer spreading throughout the body. Thus the conclusion cancer was “systemic.” Also, it was discovered thatr X-rays and radium could cause cancers. Radium was used as day-glowe paint on watch numbers. The women brushing the radium on the watches, licked the brushes, and the radium worked its way into their bone marrow. In 1927 they were called the “Radium Girls.” and many of them died from cancers before their lawsuits were settled.

X-ray were further refined in the 1950’s by stanford radiologist  Henry Kaplan, who discovered that x-rays in a linear accelerator were far more powerful than normal x-0ray treatment, largely because it was more powerful ands could drill deep down into the core of a tumor, destroying a larger amount of cancer cells before they could create other cells that might bed resistant to further treatments. This treatment was highly effective in Hodgkin’s lymphoma  because it dealt with localized tumors, not a cancer that systemically spread through the body. The drug produced heavy nausea (drugs to prevent nausea are called “anitemetics”–only the medical profession could come up with a word like that)

The beginning of Chemo

 The free market helped lead to chemo. In the 1800’s textiles  and cloth milling were huge industries and this eventually lead to a chemist creating a synthetic dye through chemicals. Ibn 1878 Paul Ehrlich proposed using cloth dyes to stain tissues to make it easier to study them. He discovered various dyes stained different portions of the cll, and this lead him to wonder if some chemical could discriminate bacterial cells from healthy cells without killing the host. The beginning theory of chemo. This led to Erhlich creating a vaccine for syphilis, the famous “magic bullet,” because it could “target” the disease and “magic” for its specificity. But he was stumped by cancer cells because they were bacteria, they resembled human cells too closely (anyone who has ever worked for a corporation would find this easy to believe. A joke.)
Chemical warfare leads to chemo
On July 12, 1917, the Germans dropped bombs with little yellow crosses on them on British troops stations near the Belgian town of Ypres. These bombs contained a yellow gas  that smelled like garlic, horseradish and mustard, thus the name mustard gas. That night the gas injured or killed two thousand soldiers, its gas could diffuse through leather and rubber and soaked through clothing. in 1919, pathologists analyzed the effects of the bombing and discovered an unusual condition in the survivor’s bone marrow: the normal blood-forming cells dried up.
Later on December 2, 1943, American ships docked outside Bari in southern Italy were bombed the the Nazis. One of the destroyed ships, the John Harvey  was stockpiled with 70 tons of mustard gas and exploded. Of the 617 men rescued 83 died the first week. Nearly a 1,000 men and women died for complications from the gas as it traveled through the coast.
The US Chemical Warfare Unit had scientists who investigated the nitrogen mustard gas, especially the gas’s capacity to decimate white blood cells.
The scientists wondered, could this effect be harnessed to only target malignant cells?
Cisplatin Reborn.
Cisplatin existed in the mid 1800’s, but it was reborn to help cure cancer by accident. In 1965, a Michigan state University biophysicist, Barnett Rosenberg was experimenting on whether electric currents might stimulate bacterial cell division. He placed electrodes in a flask and discovered bacteria stopped their cell division. But it wasn’t electricity that did this, the electrodes were made of platinum, which reacted with the salt  in the solution to created Cisplatin, which stopped the DNA in the bacteria’s cells from multiplying and dividing. So this chemical was used in Chemo! But it wasn’t until 1974, when it was used the successfully treat a dying man who had testicular cancer that spread to his lymph nodes and lungs.
In the sixties, it was further discovered that a combination ( a “cocktail”) of various cytotoxic chemo drugs was more effective than individual drugs. The battle was always how much a patient could take before you almost killed them; for example, without white blood cells, which chemo destorys, as patient’s immunity system is compromised and they can die.
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