Word-o’-the-Week: Cancer

Hi everyone!

There is some good news to report regarding my mom—specifically, that a PET-scan from Thursday indicated that the tumor in her pancreas has not metastasized to other regions. We asked the oncological surgeon if pancreatic cancer cells had “favorite” locations for spread, and he seemed most worried about the liver and the lungs. As far as we can tell, there is no cancer there at the moment. We hope this will make my mom eligible for particular clinical trials that are looking for candidates without metastasis. 

That being said, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my own head trying to figure out how to make sense of all of this. It’s not easy. But as a word-nerd, one of the ways I’ve approached this is from a linguistic perspective. Hence, this week’s word: Cancer.

The earliest English uses of the word Cancer refer to the fourth sign of the Zodiac. (Fittingly enough, we are right in the middle of Cancer’s reign, since it began on June 21.) The constellation symbol is the crab. Since I don’t know all that much about astrology, I will simply say that the OED‘s first entry on the zodiac-related mentions of Cancer come from Equatorie of Planetis from 1392 (thought by some to be penned by Chaucer). The line reads: “Tak thanne . . . a boydekyn &, in direct of the hed of cancer, thow shalt in the cercle þat is closere of the signes . . .make a litel hole.” These really old usages, as well as the more modern ones, straightforwardly discuss Cancer as a constellation.

Of course Cancer also refers to a genus of crab. But the question I’m still hoping to answer is how these really old astrological and zoological definitions relating to the crab constellation eventually relate to our more modern understandings of Cancer as a disease.

OED’s first example of Cancer as a vague medical term comes 135 years after the example from Equatorie of Planetis. This one comes from Laurence Andrewe’s translation of Hieronymus von Braunschweig’s The vertuose boke of distyllacyon of the waters (1527), a medical book about water distillation: “The Cancer wasshed with the same and clowtes wet ther in layde ther vpon, cawseth them to hele.” The OED points out that the word Cancer is translated from the German word Krebs. The modern German word for crab is Krabbe, so are we getting close to a connection?

The other sixteenth-century examples refer to Cancer as a type of ulcer or sore. Obviously sixteenth-century medicine was not extremely precise, but one can sense from the examples that we are heading into Enlightenment territory as medical texts hope to examine and categorize scientific information about disease. My favorite entry from early Enlightenment comes from a 1601 translation of Pliny’s History of the World: “Cancer is a swelling or sore comming of melancholy bloud, about which the veins appeare of a blacke or swert colour, spread in manner of a Creifish clees.” Though I can’t be positive, this may be the linguistic link between the crab and cancer-as-disease, as the translator (Philemon Holland) describes the sore as “spread” like crayfish claws (like a crab? a round mass with limbs extended?).

This idea of “spread” is what gives Cancer its figurative meaning: something that grows and infects and, figuratively, metastasizes. These figurative usages are as old as the medical ones, signifying to me that the literal and nonliteral were always closely connected. For example, the ONLY time Shakespeare uses the word Cancer in any of his plays occurs in Troilus and Cressida, in a manner referring to both Cancer the constellation (literal) and the growth of Achilles’s ego (nonliteral): “That were to enlard his fat-already pride, / And add more coals to Cancer when he burns / With entertaining great Hyperion.” As usual, Shakespeare is the master of blending the figurative and the actual.

And today, I am grateful that my mom’s literal cancer has not aligned with its figurative meaning of metastasis. It could do so at any moment, but let’s hope that it will stay put for now, until we can treat it for the local malignancy that it is.

In a further effort to intellectualize this—(perhaps it is easier to intellectualize cancer than to emotionally manage it?)—I’ve bought a copy of Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee to read. Chances are that a Pulitzer-prize-winning oncologist knows more about the linguistic origins of the word Cancer than I do. In other words, I’ll check back in soon.



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