The word cancer has several diverse meanings. Today in its most common usage, cancer usually references a medical condition. The condition is categorized by a malignant tumor that is the result of uncontrolled cell division. Oftentimes the disease spreads to other parts of the body by way of the lymphatic system. If left untreated, cancer oftentimes results in death.
Cancer has impacted humans throughout recorded history. Fossilized bone tumors have been discovered that clearly show the presence of the disease thousands of years ago. The origin of the word itself is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC). Hippocrates is regarded as the “Father of Medicine.” However, Hippocrates never used the word cancer. He used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe tumors that were ulcer and non-ulcer forming. It wasn’t until the Renaissance period and the 15th century that scientists began to call the disease cancer.
Cancer has three other major definitions, all of which predate the medical condition of cancer. The first occurrence of the word cancer is found in Greek mythology. Cancer the crab was sent by Hera to distract Hercules during his twelve labors. While Hercules was busy fighting Hydra, a multi-headed monster, Cancer clamped onto the toe of Hercules with his claws. Hercules stepped on Cancer and crushed him with his foot. Hera was grateful for Cancer’s sacrifice and lifted him into the heavens. He became the constellation Cancer, but was given dim stars since he didn’t defeat Hercules. The twelve labors of Hercules is attributed to the Greek poet Peisandros of Rhodes. The poem is thought to have been written around 610 BC.
Later, Cancer would become the fourth sign of the zodiac in regard to Astrology. The zodiac is an imaginary belt in the sky that extends about eight degrees on either side of the ecliptic. The sun arcs through the twelve signs of the zodiac during the tropical year. In ancient times, the sun occupied the constellation of cancer between June 22 and July 22. Tropical astrology is thought to have origins around 100 BC.
In conclusion, the word cancer first appeared in Greek mythology in the story of Hercules and his twelve labors around 610 BC. Cancer became a part of tropical astronomy around 100 BC. Cancer began to be used to describe the medical condition of unrestrained cell division around 1400 AD.