Cancer has existed since time immemorial.
The earliest written description of cancer is in an ancient Egyptian text on surgery written around 3000 B.C. The text is called the Edwin Smith papyrus (named after Edwin Smith, an American dealer of antiquities who bought it from its Egyptian owner in 1862).
The Edwin Smith papyrus is a scroll more than 15 feet in length and filled with hieratic writing (cursive hieroglyphs) written on both sides. Although most of the writing relates to the treatment of wounds, head injuries, spine injuries, and fractures, there is also a significant amount of information on cancers.
Based on the information in various papyri, it is clear that ancient Egyptians were able to distinguish benign from malignant tumors.
Ancient Egyptians used various surgical methods to remove cancers – cutting with knives and burning with cautery (the Edwin Smith papyrus describes 8 cases of breast tumors treated with an instrument called the “fire drill”). They also used powders and pastes (the arsenic paste introduced at that time remained in use as “Egyptian ointment” until the end of the 19th century). But cancer was clearly recognized as being an incurable disease.
Ancient Indians, Chinese, Persians, Sumerians, and others were less inclined towards surgery but made efforts to treat cancer with herbs or potions, and by applying caustic pastes.
Often, the treatment (especially of advanced cancer) included the use of spells and incantations in an attempt to relieve the misery of the patient. The George Ebers papyrus, another Egyptian text from the time, contains detailed descriptions of the mechanical, herbal, and magical treatments that were in use for cancer at the time.