In ancient medical literature few references to cancer can be found. There are two possible reasons for thisone is that cancer is a disease of the later ages of life, and in the old days of plagues and wars so few people lived to ripe ages that the disease was comparatively rare. Another reason may be that means of curing cancer were unknown up to 65 years ago.
Newspapers, until a few years ago, did not like to print the word cancer, and no wonder, when all it meant was the idea of a loathsome growth and a slow and painful death. But things have changed. One of the sure-fire newspaper stories today is the announcement of the discovery of the cause of cancer, or of a new cure for cancer.
Unfortunately, all of these discoveries are not genuine. The real facts about cancer are not dramatic, but they are important for every-one to know. The Society for the Prevention of Cancer urges that public addresses by members of the medical profession acquaint the public with the early signs and possibilities of cure. The bureau of health and public instruction of the American Medical Association issues a number of pamphlets designed for the same purpose. News-papers are urged to take part in the campaign as a public duty.
The steps which have advanced our knowledge so that the outlook is so much more hopeful are four.
The first came with the application of the microscope to the study of diseased tissue. In 1858 Virchow, the German pathologist, published his treatise on the changes in body cells in disease, called “Cellular Pathology.”
He found that under the microscope the various kinds of new growth showed quite characteristic cell arrangementsso characteristic that they can be recognized for diagnostic purposes. Also that there were stages in the development of these growths, and in the early stages a cancer is so small and circumscribed that removal at that time will prevent its recurrence.
The second step came with the perfection of aseptic surgery by Lister, the Englishman, ten years after the publication of Virchow’s book.
Soon after the discovery of the x-rays in 1895 by Roentgen, the German, it was found that these rays would destroy living body cells. And that by modifying the strength of the current the destructive action could be modified from that of a superficial scorch to that of a deep burn. Furthermore, the action of the ray is selective; it destroys first young and undifferentiated cells, which is what cancer cells are. This was another weapon, and our third step in the conquest of cancer.
Lastly, when, in 1898, radium was separated by the French scientists Becquerel and M. and Mme. Curie, it was found to have the same properties as the x-ray, and to lend itself to more serviceable application, in destroying cancerous tissue.