Timeline: cancer's history

A dinosaur cartoon

80 million years ago

Dinosaur bone fossils from this period show possible evidence of containing cancerous cells.

3000 BC

Evidence of cancer found in Egyptian mummies from this period.

1600 BC

Egyptian papyruses describe treatments for cancer including cutting out with a knife or burning with red-hot irons. Stomach cancer was treated with boiled barley mixed with dates, cancer of the uterus by a concoction of fresh dates mixed with pig's brain introduced into the vagina.

A cartoon of the Egyptian pyramids400 BC

Evidence of cancer found in mummies of pre-Columbian Incas of Peru.

300 BC

Hippocrates, the Greek 'Father of Medicine', named a range of tumours, lumps and bumps as carcinos and carcinoma. It was thought cancerous tumours had roots spreading out like the legs of a crab. Cancer was thought to be caused by too much black bile in the body.

A cartoon of Hippocrates50 AD

Like the Greeks, the Romans found that some tumours could be removed by surgery and cauterised (burnt), but no medicine seemed to work. They found that surgery sometimes increased the spread of the cancer, or that tumours sometimes grew again.

500–1500 AD

Little progress was made in understanding cancer. It was still believed to be caused by too much black bile. Surgery and cautery were used on smaller tumours. Caustic (burning) pastes, usually containing arsenic, were used for control of more extensive cancer. Phlebotomy (blood-letting), diet, herbal medicines, powder of crab and other symbolic charms were used.

 A pentagram cartoon1500 AD

Autopsies (examining bodies to find out the cause of death) were conducted more often and understanding of internal cancers began to improve.

1650 AD

A cartoon of human cellsThe development of microscopes, and better understanding of cells and the blood and lymphatic systems were major steps in improving understanding of cancer.

1750 AD

Causes for some cancers suggested. For example, snuff was linked to cancer in the nose and soot to scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps.


A cartoon of an xrayImportant discoveries in anaesthetics and control of infection improved surgical methods.


X-rays discovered.


The radioactive substance, radium was discovered. It is now used to treat some types of cancer.

A cartoon of a beaker1900

Hundreds of materials, both man-made and natural, were recognised as causes of cancer (carcinogens). Improvements made in diagnosing (identifying) diseases and the changes those diseases bring about in the body, due to advances in areas of science such as physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology.


Radiotherapy—use of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop them dividing—was developed as a treatment.

A cartoon of pills1945

Chemotherapy—use of drugs to treat cancer—was tested.

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