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According to historians, the ancient Egyptians blamed cancer on the gods. Treatment included the use of grains and fruits, as well as cauterization of affected areas of the body, attempts that yielded few (if any) results. Societies throughout history took a similar approach to cancer treatment and came up with various theories regarding causation.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that cancer became more widely understood. The single-lens microscope, developed in the 1670s by Dutch scientist Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, revolutionized the study of cells and helped lead to the creation of oncology. The study and treatment of tumors, primarily cancerous varieties, is known as oncology.


The importance of the single-lens microscope notwithstanding, the foundation of oncology is attributed to Italian anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni. In 1761, Morgagni attempted to find the recurring cause for a large number of unexplained deaths at the time. He did this by conducting autopsies to attempt to connect a patient's perceived illness to post-mortem pathologic findings.


Morgagni’s work served as the basis of oncology, a field of vital importance that has grown tremendously since the 18th century. Over the years, oncologists have developed treatments and tools that weren’t possible in the 1700s, such as early detection screenings and genetic testing.

The 18th Century and the Development of Oncology

Rather than a standalone disease, cancer actually consists of a group of more than 100 distinct diseases, wherein one’s cells begin to grow at an uncontrollable rate, destroying body tissue. The condition is often fatal. Today, cancer is the second-leading cause of premature death in the world, reports the Mayo Clinic, behind only heart disease. The most common forms of cancer include breast cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, and colon cancer.


As the disease can affect every organ of the body, cancer is nearly impossible to eradicate. Even with various forms of modern medical technology at our disposal, cancer remains a scourge upon society. In fact, more than 38% of men and women will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their life.


And although modern doctors are much better equipped to treat cancer than their 18th-century counterparts, the cost of treatment is prohibitive to many patients. Some patients even turn to creative and unorthodox means to help cover the cost of cancer treatment, including fundraising campaigns and seeking out sponsorship from charitable organizations. Of course, starting a GoFundMe campaign wasn’t an option for cancer patients in the 1700s, but their medical bills were also much more reasonable. In fact, 18th-century medical patients even had the option to barter, exchanging goods and services as a means of paying for their medical care.

Preventative Measures to Fight Cancer

It’s important to note that treatment is only a small part of cancer-related medical care and its accompanying bills. There’s also detection and prevention to consider. Although cancer has a number of root causes, it also may be genetic, a fact that 18th-century physicians were unaware of.


Today’s oncologists can perform specific genetic testing to identify a patient’s cancer risk. Thus, genetic testing can be an ideal preventative measure among those who may be genetically predisposed to the disease. There are additional preventive measures one can take to avoid cancer, especially if genetics are a concern.


For example, certain vaccines have been shown to reduce one’s risk of contracting cancer, most notably the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which helps prevent cervical cancer. Further, avoiding tobacco and making healthy dietary and lifestyle choices may also reduce the risk of cancer. In the 1700s, cultivating a healthy lifestyle wasn’t prioritized, and most people had little choice in regards to their choices of food and drink. Cancer prevention is a distinctly modern medical concept.

Dealing with the Idea of Mortality

Yet our 18th-century ancestors were much more experienced in the realm of mortality. Premature death was an unfortunately common reality in the 1700s, especially among young people. In fact, nearly two-thirds of children in the mid-1700s died before reaching the age of 5. Rather than cancer, however, these children typically succumbed to diseases such as smallpox and consumption.


Both in the past and in contemporary society, physicians nonetheless had to tackle difficult conversations with their patients. To many patients, simply hearing the word “cancer” can seem like a death sentence, invoking feelings of dread and despair. Fortunately for modern patients, cancer-related conversations with one’s medical professional are centered around treatment plans rather than mortality. Today, we’re more likely to enjoy a lengthy, full life than citizens of the 18th century, even with a cancer diagnosis.


Average life expectancy began to climb in the 18th century, thanks in part to oncologists and other medical professionals who helped advance the field of healthcare. Without researchers such as Morgagni and van Leeuwenhoek, cancer screening, prevention, and treatment may not exist. We still have a long way to go until cancer is no longer a threat to humanity, but the seeds of cancer eradication were sown in the 1700s.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.