The Etymology of the Word “Cancer”

What is it about the word “cancer” that triggers such a deep sense of trepidation?  Where did the word “cancer” even come from? The Roman physician and philosopher Galen (AD 129-200) is credited with naming breast tumors whose shape resembled the claws of a crab.  Like all Roman academics, Galen considered Latin beneath contempt, so he gave these tumors a Greek name, karkinos, which means “crab,” which eventually evolved to cancer’s technical term, carcinoma.

Galen’s efforts to preserve the highbrow Greek language failed in this instance, and the Latin term “cancer” became the commonly accepted term for these crab-shaped tumors. The crab is an appropriate symbol for a disease that is frequently characterized by its tenacious ability to hold on to its victim, sometimes for many years.  After treatment, cancer can return quickly, or it can quietly lie in wait for decades and then suddenly reappear.

The idea of malignancy seems to be built into the very word itself.  Even if “cancer” meant “beautiful, fragrant flower,” it is not a pretty word, with its hard-edged first syllable and the hissing “s” on the second.

QUESTION: If cancer had a different name, say something like “genetic cell variation disease” would it inspire the same level of dread?

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