Why Is Cancer Called “Cancer”? And Why Do “Oncologists” Treat It?

This is a short article that discusses the meaning and etymology of the term “cancer”.

Around 400 BC, renowned Greek physician Hippocrates first used the word “karkinos”, which means crab in Greek, to describe a particular disease.  Hippocrates,“the father of medicine”, saw many patients of advanced cancer – with no known treatment at the time.  Nobody knows for sure why he used the word “crab” for this illness.  Maybe he used the word to describe the disease which eats away the body like a crab.  Possibly he felt that the spreading finger-like projections of a cancer resembled a crab’s legs, or that the engorged veins surrounding an advanced cancer looked like the tentacles of a crab.  Maybe he just thought that the hard mass of a cancer felt like a crab’s shell.  Or perhaps he felt the tenacity of a crab’s grip best described the disease that just doesn’t let go.

Interestingly, “karka” also means crab in Sanskrit, and one of the Indian words for cancer is “karkaroga” or “crab disease”.

Whatever the reason, the name karkinos endured.  About 500 years later, the Roman philosopher/physician Celsus used the term “cancer” in his encyclopedia of medicine – cancer is simply the Latin translation of karkinos.  In the 14th century AD, the Latin word cancer was directly adopted into English usage, and became the English word for the disease.

Hippocrates is also credited with using the word “onkos” to describe tumors – onkos means “mass” or “burden” in Greek (See this post to know the difference between a cancer and a tumor).  And this is how the word oncology which means “the study of tumors” originated.


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