How Cancer Got Its Name

A linguistic journey back in time

It’s believed that the world’s first recorded cases of cancer may be traced as far back as 2500 BC. The Egyptian physician Imhotep described a “bulging mass in the breast” in written research that has been preserved over time. Yet it was more than 2000 years later – around 400 BC that the Greek physician Hippocrates first named a mass of cancerous cells karkinos, the Greek word for “crab.”

edwin smith papyrusImhotep’s writings have been preserved on the Edwin Smith papyrus, pictured above. 

For Hippocrates a malignant tumor – and the swollen blood vessels around it – reminded him of a crab dug in the sand with its legs spread in a circle. Later, writers, doctors and patients would add embellishments to the origin of the word. Some would propose that Hippocrates chose the name because the hardness of a tumor reminded him of the outer shell of a crab. Still others believe that he chose the name because the pain of a malignant tumor may have reminded him of the painful pinch of a crab.

Regardless, the term karkinos would have been familiar to Hippocrates, as a crab is central to Greek mythology. In fact, the constellation that is today known as Cancer originated from the Twelve Labors of Hercules (or Heracles) – a famous narrative of ancient Greece. cancer constellation 0745821According to Greek mythology, Karkinos was sent to bite the foot of Hercules while he was fighting The Lernean Hydra, but Hercules quickly dispensed of the creature, who was then immortalized with a place among the starts.

Following Hippocrates’ application of the term to cancerous cells, it was another 350 years before karkinos was translated to the word we know today. It was around 47 AD that the Grecko-Roman philosopher Celsus translated the Greek karkinos to the Latin word for crab: cancer.

Incidentally, the term oncology – the field of medicine dealing with cancer – is also derived from ancient Greek. Onkos was the Greek term for a mass or a load, or more commonly, a burden. In fact, onkos was used in Greek theater to identify a tragic mask that was worn as a symbol of physic burdens carried by its wearer. By 200 AD the Greek physician Galen had applied the term to medicine – using onkos as the name for all tumors, both malignant and benign. As the field of medicine advanced in the centuries that followed, onkos was adopted as the root of the word oncology – the field of medicine that we know today.

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  1. Michelle B. says:

    The only cure for cancer is JESUS CHRIST. There are miracles.

    1. Rose Layard says:

      100% correct. Jesus healed my husband and then he prayed for others who got healed. As a medical professional I must acknowledge that the power of God to heal is for today to all who believe

  2. Carolina petrucci says:

    its time to rename both .
    .the word cancel ..amd oncologoy
    the word has to.much negative power ..fear and trauma ..
    Se need to remake tjis pathology..in the name of all’ of us whole dealt with it .