‘Cancer’ is the Latin translation for the Greek word karkinos, which means ‘crab’ or ‘crayfish’. This Latin translation was used to describe a tumour because the swollen veins surrounding it were said to give the impression of a crab’s body and its sprawling limbs. In 1601, Philemon Holland (1552–1637), a school teacher, translator and physician translated from Latin the encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia, by Roman philosopher and military officer Pliny the Elder. It’s here he described cancer as “a swelling or sore comming of melancholy bloud, about which the veins appeare of a blacke or swert colour, spread in manner of a Creifish clees”. The alternative term ‘Canker’, which derives from the Old French word chancre, was also used to describe tumours, but it was ‘cancer’ that became the preferred term from the 17th century onwards and these days, canker refers only to a kind of blistered infection. Cancer, we can see then, has been around for thousands of years and yet it sometimes feels like the disease of our generation.
According to information from the UK’s National Health Service, in 2011, almost 331,500 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer, and more than one in three people are expected to develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. The odds are stacked against us: if it doesn’t get you, it will most likely get someone close to you. And if it does, all you can do is be by their bedside, hold their hand tightly and let them know that they are loved; even on the days when they are vomiting and you want to bury your head in the sand, or when they stare blankly at a wall pretending they are too far gone to hear you. For the people left behind, the word cancer rings in the ears whenever it’s mentioned. Paranoia, questions of religion, and a sense of impending doom ensue, for a time.
So, how can we escape it? Or are we powerless against this all too common disease?
Around 5-10% of cancers are inherited through genetics, which means that 90-95% of cancer cases are actually a result of environmental factors—not only pollution but obesity, tobacco, stress and a general lack of physical activity. For all our ‘progress’, we live in a world where our lifestyles are literally killing us. The best we can do is to get ourselves into shape, take care of our environments and what we put into them, and take all the opportunities that are available to us for free cancer screening.
The future may not be bleak for us, though. According to Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD speaking to the UK’s Stand Up to Cancer campaign on its website, there is an “increasing survival rates for a variety of cancers. Thirty years ago, the five-year survival rate for cancers in general was less than 50 percent. Today, it is higher than 66 percent”. He goes on to explain that what is needed is collaboration between experts in different scientific fields but adds that the “elements of future breakthroughs are steadily coming into sight”.