Sunday, 5 January 2014

Cancer - That Crabby C Word

Photo by Zane Hollingsworth


Noun. Old English.
[Latin - crab, creeping ulcer, after Greek karkinos: compare with CANKER noun, CARCINOMA.]

1(a) (Capitalised) (The name of) an inconspicuous constellation of the northern hemisphere,
on the ecliptic between Gemini and Leo;
ASTROLOGY (the name of) the fourth zodiacal sign, usually associated with the period 22 June to 22 July (see ZODIAC);
the Crab. OE

1(b) A person born under the sign of Cancer. M20

2(a) A malignant tumour or growth of body tissue that tends to spread and may recur if removed;
disease in which such a growth occurs.
Compare with CANKER noun (the usual form until the 17th century). OE

2(b) figurative. An evil spreading in the manner of a cancer. M17

3 obsolete. A crab. E17-L18

Sometimes I'm amazed at my own ignorance, and reading just a little about cancer has prompted such amazement. Cancer is a ubiquitous disease, one that's afflicted mankind since time immemorial; cancer has struck, more than once, in my own family. And yet, despite this, I must admit that my knowledge of cancer has been woefully superficial at best. As a Western man, the grim reality is that my chances of developing some kind of cancer are 1 in 3, so perhaps I've opted to remain in a state of blissful ignorance - after all, until it happens to you, cancer is always something that happens to someone else, right? If this is true, if on some subconscious level I have chosen to pull the duvet over my head and cover my ears, this is stupidity to a bafflingly profound degree. After all, a little knowledge of cancer might just help me avoid it by the lifestyle choices I make, and if ever it should strike, perhaps that little bit of understanding will help me not to be overcome with fear. Below is a little of what I've learnt about cancer, together with an excellent video made by a blogger that explains her own research into cancer, and some links to relevant organisations if you'd like to learn more.

The Etymology of Cancer

Cancer, the disease, comes from the Greek karkinos, meaning 'crab', and is applied to both the creature and constellation. It was first applied to the disease by Hippocrates around 400 B.C.E, specifically while he was examining tumours. It's unknown exactly why Hippocrates applied the idea of a crab to a tumour - it's possible that their hardness reminded him of a crab's shell, or the pain they caused was likened to the pinch of a crab, or even the tenacity of a tumour, 'biting' and refusing to let go. In around 47 C.E, the Greco-Roman philosopher Celsus maintained the Greek metaphor of karkinos, but now using the Latin cancer (crab), from where we get the English word cancer today. An interesting indicator as to the progress of cancer care is that, until relatively recently, cancer was considered something of a taboo in English, sometimes whispered or referred to as "the C word". Medical historian Dr Howard Markel explains in an excellent interview with that cancer had been a death sentence for thousands of years, but as treatments and the prognosis of cancer improved, so too did the word emerge from something that was unutterable to something that could be spoken of more openly.

What Is Cancer?

Of all the professionally made medical videos and presentations I watched during my research for this post, the best (by far) was made by a fellow blogger who, on a similar quest to discover a little bit more about cancer, made the video below. It's well worth spending a couple of minutes watching it.

10 Facts About Cancer

(All information taken from The World Health Organization website)

  1. Cancer is not one disease. There are more than 100 different types, and any part of the body can be affected.
  2. In 2008, 7.6 million people died of cancer, accounting for 13% of all deaths worldwide.
  3. Approximately 70% of all cancer deaths occur in low to middle income countries.
  4. The five most common types of cancer that kill men are: lung, stomach, liver, colorectal and oesophagus.
  5. The five most common types of cancer that kill women are: breast, lung, stomach, colorectal and cervical.
  6. Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of cancer, accounting for 22% of worldwide cancer deaths.
  7. 1/5 of all cancers are caused by a chronic infection, such as HPV (cervical cancer) and hepatitis B (liver cancer).
  8. Cancers of major public relevance, such as breast, cervical and colorectal, can be cured if detected and treated early.
  9. All patients in need of pain relief could be helped if current knowledge about pain control and palliative care were applied.
  10. Over 30% of cancer is preventable, mainly by not using tobacco, having a healthy diet, being physically active and using alcohol moderately.
    In developing countries, 20% of cancer deaths could be prevented by immunization programmed against the infections HBV and HPV.

Do You Need More Information on Cancer?

Do please share this post and comment in the box below.


  1. Nice one Ed. I'm also often amazed at your ignorance ( only pulling your enormous leg ) but have to admit I didn't really know that much about cancer either.
    One thing in the video that struck me though: "this makes cancer cells immortal." Interesting. What if one day, we learn how to extract the immortality part of cancer cells but remove the tumours and subsequent death part.
    Then I might have time to finish watching the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    1. Ha! It wasn't false modesty - I was just struck by how much knowledge we amass, 90% of which is utter rubbish (an Ewok can beat a Stormtrooper in an arm wrestle 9 times out of 10, and Danny Dyer is now landlord of the Queen Vic), but on a subject like cancer, something that we hear and read about every single day, a subject that's of vital importance, we can be stupendously ignorant. I had no idea, for example, that one tumour commonly has several types of cancer cell, and I didn't really understand that cancer in itself isn't a disease, but rather a class of many different diseases. I also didn't know (although it seems obvious now) that staying physically active is very important in preventing cancer.

      You're right about about the immortality cells section - that was really interesting (another thing I didn't know). I thought it was just a proliferation of cells, and not about the cells not dying when they should.

      All in all, yes, I'm still staggered at how little I knew, and at how little I know. And I need to eat less and do more exercise.

  2. It often baffles me how often people avoid using the word "cancer". People die because "they've been very ill for a very long time". Not because of cancer. I find that weird. Avoiding the word doesn't make the thing go away.

    1. Yes, it is strange - I've heard it whispered or people using the 'C word' too. Hopefully as treatment continues to improve, so will the willingness of people to talk about it and learn about it.

  3. Just spent an hour typing out my comment, but unfortunately when I hit publish it didn't happen and I lost it all,
    For anyone reading, it is probably a good thing since you don't need to know my sobbing story, which I was in floods of tears typing.

    It is the 1st time that I have expressed in typing or writing what happened to my mum with cancer and it was very therapeutic for me lol even though I'm a mess right now.

    So I would like to say to our Founding Blogger..
    I appreciate the work you put in and the consistency of your resolve.



    1. I'm sorry that you lost your comment, T1 - I checked the spam folder, as sometimes Blogger mistakenly sends a genuine comment there, but nothing. However, an unposted comment, rather like an unsent letter, can indeed be very therapeutic, so I'm glad it was for you. I'm sorry for the loss of your Mum - I lost my Mum about four years ago, though not to cancer. I still don't tend to talk about it that much, and the post I wrote on the word 'breath' was the first time I've really written about it. Writing is always very therapeutic - whether or not anyone else ever reads it in the end.

  4. I really appreciate this post, Eddie. As usual, I enjoy your voice and the style you bring to the subject. But I also really resonate with this call to better knowledge and understanding. As you said, this is a very relevant issue, but one we consistently avoid--both in conversation and in personal education and understanding.

    Thank you for this post!

  5. I have lost 5 family members and friends to cancer, (the latest being my best friend last May who had pancreatic cancer), so I have learned a lot about cancer that way.
    I do agree that most people are uncomfortable talking about it.
    I think that for many, cancer is their biggest fear, and not talking about it is their way of handling that fear.

    The T 1 thousand - I'm sorry to hear about your mum. I also lost my mum to cancer, and it's hard.
    It's a cliche, but in time the pain will be easier to bear.
    Internet hugs to you.

    Very nicely written again Eddie.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jingles - very sensitive and insightful as always.