A brief history of the fight against cancer

Joe Biden wants to put a stop to cancer. Image: REUTER/Mike Blak

Ceri Parker
Previously Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Watch US Vice-President Joe Biden's Cancer Moonshot here.

This week in Davos, US Vice-President Joe Biden will give an update on his call for a “moonshot” to beat cancer. Below is some context to today’s struggle against mankind’s ancient enemy.

1. Cancer has been present through human history. The first evidence included growths suggestive of bone cancer in Egyptian mummies, while a medical papyrus dating back to 3000 BC records attempts to remove breast tumours with a tool called a fire drill, noting that “there is no treatment” for the disease. It would be several thousand years before the disease even had a name. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe tumours, which were later translated into the Latin word cancer. All terms stem from the word for crab, thought to refer to the shape of tumours.

2. In the 18th century, autopsies helped improve physicians’ understanding of the human body. The pioneering Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) suggested that some types of cancer could be cured by surgery, and that if a tumour was “moveable”, then “there is no impropriety in moving it”. While ancient Egyptians blamed the gods, many Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries thought cancer was a contagious disease.

3. The age of modern medicine has meant that cancer is no longer necessarily a death sentence. The development of anaesthesia in the 19th century allowed operations such as the mastectomy to be developed, while radiation therapy emerged at the turn of the 20th century. It was a century that would bring breakthroughs including an understanding of DNA and genetic links to cancer, screening programmes, less invasive surgical techniques and public health programmes to raise awareness of risk factors. In the UK, for example, survival rates have doubled in the past 40 years.


4. Despite all this progress, the challenge is vast. Cancer is one of the world’s biggest killers, with approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million deaths a year. It strikes the old and the young, the healthy and the weak. However, lifestyle factors account for around one-third of cancer deaths. Tobacco use alone accounts for 20% of deaths, while other risk factors are weight, a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet, alcohol and a lack of exercise. And as we live for longer, the risk of getting cancer in the first place is actually getting worse.

5. Today, new technology is transforming the way cancer is diagnosed and treated: from quickly and cheaply analysing a person’s genetic risk profile to personalized techniques that specifically target a patient’s cancer cells. In an article calling for a "moonshot" to end cancer as know it, Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, noted that:

"Several cutting-edge areas of research and care — including cancer immunotherapy, genomics, and combination therapies — could be revolutionary. Innovations in data and technology offer the promise to speed research advances and improve care delivery."

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum