Origin of the word "cancer"

The disease was first called cancer by Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC). He is considered the “Father of Medicine”. Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumors. In Greek this means a crab. The description was names after the crab because the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer called to mind the shape of a crab. – source

So the cancer cells spread in a way that tumor looks like a crab. Why? Why doesn't it, for example, have a potato-like spread in which cancer cells form a sphere?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess that the projections are supportive vasculature. Also keep in mind that tumours don't actually really look anything like crabs. The Greeks seem to have been quite imaginative (see constellations). $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Dec 21, 2014 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ Potatoes aren't very invasive - that is, they can't crawl where they don't belong, they can't spread between tissues, etc. I'm very sure this is why they weren't described as potato-like. Also, the picture you have is a scanning electron microscopic image. This is not what the Greeks saw. They probably were describing an invasive tissue with projections and vascularization. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2014 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, the pic is only a simulation of what Greeks saw, I just wanted it to be there to stop some "users" from asking: What do you mean by crab? :-) $\endgroup$
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 21, 2014 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth pointing out that potatoes are from South America and were not introduced to the old world until the 16th century (source). Even if the tumor did look like a potato, Hippocrates simply wouldn't have had the vocabulary to describe it as such. $\endgroup$
    – p.s.w.g
    Dec 21, 2014 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ The term is mostly symbolic and tumours were compared to crabs perhaps because they are tenacious like crabs. This was what I read somewhere long time back. This site has some discussion on the etymology of cancer (disease). $\endgroup$
    Dec 22, 2014 at 4:42

2 Answers 2


Such projections are more formally known as spiculations. Most commonly, we talk about spiculations with respect to the radiographic appearance of malignant breast and lung lesions. This paper* describes the correlation between the mammorgraphic appearance of spiculated breast lesions and their pathology (microscopic appearance), which is a reasonable start at addressing the "why" question you pose. The authors define spiculations as follows:

A spiculated breast lesion is defined as a mass or an architectural distortion characterized by thin lines radiating from its margins.

Here is a picture taken from that paper which shows the mammographic appearance on the left and the microscopic appearance on the right, with the arrows pointing to the spiculations.

enter image description here

The linked paper gives many other examples of the microscopic and radiographic analysis of such tumors. It also explains that the two primary reasons for the spiculated shape are:

According to this report, the first explanation is more common. To understand the why behind the shape, we need to know the mechanism of this desmoplastic response. As described in the linked Wikipedia article, desmoplasia is not actually the tumor itself but dense fibrous tissue that is induced with malignant tumors invade healthy tissue. The mechanism of this is not entirely clear, but the Wikipedia article sets forth two theories:

  • The reactive stroma hypothesis postulates that tumor cells cause the proliferation of fibroblasts and subsequent secretion of collagen that acts as a scaffold. This scaffold apparently forms the outline of the "crablegs".
  • The tumor-induced stromal change hypothesis states that tumor cells themselves differentiate into fibroblasts and secrete the collagen that forms the spiculated scaffold.

*Franquet T, De Miguel C, Cozcolluela R, Donoso L. Radiographics. Spiculated lesions of the breast: mammographic-pathologic correlation. 1993 Jul;13(4):841-52.


"Cancer" is so named because the cancers Hippocrates first observed looked like crabs to him. If he had first observed cancers that most resembled potatoes, cancer probably would have been named differently today.

Cancerous growths reminded Hippocrates of a moving crab, which led to the terms carcinoma (malignant tumor) and cancer (ulcerated malignant tumor).

Reference http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.25553/full

My point is, there is no "need" for a tumor to look like a crab or any other particular shape. Most tumors are probably irregular in shape. Most often they just look like lumps. I think breast cancer turns out to look like a crab fairly often (not sure why) and it was precisely breast cancer that Hippocrates was studying, probably because it's fairly close to the surface of the body, and, hence, fairly accessible and easy to observe. That's not irrelevant when there are no proper surgical techniques and anaesthetics.

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    $\begingroup$ Why is this downvoted? $\endgroup$
    – Stefan
    Dec 22, 2014 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't downvote, but this answer doesn't seem to significantly answer the question. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Dec 22, 2014 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, looks like I wasn't paying much attention and misunderstood the question. :) $\endgroup$
    – Stefan
    Dec 23, 2014 at 1:25

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