Contrary to a far-reaching belief, cancer has been diagnosed and treated since Antiquity. The Hippocratic corpus (5th – 4th centuries BCE) coined the terms karkinos and karkinoma for referring to non healing and spreading sores and lumps. The Roman physician Galen (2nd century CE) translated these names into the latin word cancer and explained the formation of the disease within the framework of his humoral theory. In this long-lasting view, cancer was a systemic disease (i.e.: a disease affecting the whole organism) caused by an excess of black bile, which produced an imbalance of the four fluids circulating inside the organism (blood, phlegm and yellow bile being the other three).
Just as the medical explanations for the origins of cancer (as well as its therapeutics) have varied over time, the sufferers’ experiences are equally historically grounded. Successive tendencies in physicians’ knowledge and practice, but also changing religious beliefs and public policies have shaped different cultural frameworks for thinking and feeling about one’s own cancer. The available possibilities for understanding the disease and for making decisions on the best way to confront it (including the adoption of an attitude of denial) have depended on the ideas and practices circulating in a given place and time.
Through the presentation of experiences of cancer of the past -mainly from Spanish and British sufferers of the Victorian era, both well-known and anonymous-, this blog aims at encouraging a reflection on the reasons for why we currently hold some beliefs and attitudes (instead of others) towards this dreaded disease. Thus, any constructive thought, comment or suggestion engaging with the contents of the articles published is warmly welcome!
This is an outreach project that will share ideas and materials from my ongoing PhD dissertation on the History of cancer from the sufferers’ point of view in the second-half of the nineteenth-century, in a comparative perspective between Spain and Britain. The research is being developed at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) within the research group HIST-EX in History and Philosophy of Emotions and Experience, thanks to a four-year scholarship awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (Ref.: BES-2011-046132). For more information, please visit HIST-EX’s blog: http://historicalepistemology.wordpress.com