16 November 2010


This blog occasionally looks at the origins of just words - as opposed to bands, products, teams and other categories.

This particular one was inspired by life circumstance and the synchronicity of hearing a segment called "Science Diction" on the NPR program Science Friday with Howard Markel, a physician, medical educator, and historian of medicine at the University of Michigan.

It turns out that the word cancer is a word we have known and feared for a long time. It's one of those words we sometimes fear to say aloud. We use aphorisms like the "C-word" as if saying the word might make us susceptible to it.

It not so different from saying that someone "passed" rather than saying they died. But, people get cancer and people die.

We may not think of cancer as a disease existing in the time of the ancient Greeks, but breast, uterine, mouth, skin, stomach and rectal cancers were all described by Hippocates and others.

Hippocrates (back around 400 B.C.) supposedly named the disease karkinos [from the Greek, for crab]. We're most familiar with this reference from the zodiac sign Cancer, the crab.

It seems an odd choice for the disease. We're not completely sure about Hippocrates choice, but several origins have been put forth.

One is that Hippocrates saw when examining patients with malignant cancer large masses, he might have seen the hardness of these tumors to be like the protective shell of a crab.

Another explanation is that the pain of a tumor is sometimes described as like the sharp pinching of a crab’s claw which also bites and doesn't let go.

If we move ahead to the anatomist Galen of Pergamon (131-201, A.D.), he took Hippocrates' choice deeper when he dissected breast cancer tumors and described them as looking "just like a crab’s legs extended outward from every part of its body."

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