The Evolution of Cancer Treatment: A Brief History

Dr Gunes Dr Hossami

Dr. Adem Günes & Dr. Abdulla El-Hossami

The Evolution of Cancer Treatment: A Brief History

There have been huge advances in medical science over the last 50 years. From surgical techniques to cutting edge medicines, we are blessed across this generation with life-changing and, more often nowadays, life-saving healthcare interventions.

Thanks to continuous research and rising healthcare standards, the chances of surviving many diseases and illnesses have greatly improved around the world. One area where there have been vast improvements is in the evolution of the treatment of cancer.

Today we have many different approaches and therapies that not only improve outcomes but also prolong life significantly.

We have seen the development of several treatments that combined provide a powerful toolset for oncologists. Here we take a closer look at 6 types of cancer treatment and how they have evolved over time.

Surgery remains one of the main cancer treatments. Removing a malignant tumour is invasive but necessary in many cases.

Surgery was used as far back as during Roman times but major advances came in the 19th and 20th centuries when the concept of anesthesia was developed.

The first radical mastectomy was carried out by William Halsted at the end of the 19th century but the progress surgical intervention was still slow and not always successful. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that we developed greater technical and scientific expertise.

Today, with the help of technology such as digital imaging and fiber-optics, as well as new approaches like cryosurgery and laser surgery, we can excise tumours more accurately and less invasively than before.

While there is still much to understand about this branch of cancer treatment, hormones play a significant role in tumour and cancer cell development. This was first discovered in the late 19th century in Edinburgh by Thomas Beatson who saw the relationship between breast cancer and the ovaries.

Over 50 years later, a similar hormonal link was found between prostate cancer and the testes by American urologist Charles Huggins.

This is an area where big steps have been taken in recent years. We have seen the development of hormone inhibiting drugs that have shown great results with both breast and prostate cancer, for example.

Along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy is one of the standard treatments for many types of cancer. The ability to kill cancer cells using low doses of radiation started at the turn of the 20th century when Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen invented the X-ray.

Huge strides were made in the latter half of the 20th century with the development of treatments such as conformal radiation therapy and Intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

Research has also produced chemical modifiers that make cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation therapy.

When we think of cancer treatment, we tend to focus on chemotherapy. While it is invasive and has some severe side-effects, chemotherapy is still the most widely used treatment for a variety of different cancers, particularly after surgery. It works by essentially poisoning the cancer cells.

Chemotherapy developed out of World War II when scientists were looking at the effect of agents such as mustard gas. They came across nitrogen mustard which proved to be effective in destroying lymphoma cells.

Over the years, the range of chemotherapy treatments has grown and so have the approaches that help to reduce side-effects and improve outcomes.

In more recent times, immunotherapy has become an important and highly effective treatment for cancer patients. Our immune system helps to fight disease and this therapy works by boosting our natural mechanisms in this area.

Immunotherapy brings different approaches to cancer treatment, from creating antibodies that fight cancer cells to cancer vaccines and drugs that interrupt or boost the immune response.

Today it can be used as a standalone treatment for many cancers and it is also used in combination with other therapies.

Targeted therapy is another more recent innovation in cancer treatment that has shown extremely promising results. While chemotherapy is designed to kill cells themselves, targeted therapy uses drugs to influence the growth, division and subsequent spread of those cells.

This is less invasive than chemotherapy. Current treatments include inhibitors that interrupt the growth signals to the cells as well as drugs that slow or prevent the development of blood vessels in tumours.

Targeted therapies are currently being used in the treatment of lung cancer, colorectal cancer and kidney cancer, to name just a few.

In the 21st century, we are lucky to have access to a range of treatments for cancer. As our knowledge and skill have improved, these therapy options not only give cancer patients hope for the future but greatly increase their chances of survival and full remission.

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