Skip to Content


The Definition of Cancer

By the turn of the millennium, as Mendelsohn completed four years at M. D. Anderson, talk of curing cancer by 2000 had faded. The disease had defied medical logic for so long that people had endowed it with metaphorical power, as if it were a conscious entity. Cancer is “malignant” and “insidious,” many described,and “eats” its way into “victims,” “devouring” them until, skin and bones, they expire. 

In 1893, British poet Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “Children of the Zodiac,” warned, “Cancer the Crab lies so still that you might think he was asleep if you did not see the ceaseless play and winnowing motion of the feathery branches around his mouth. . . . It is like the eating of a smothering fire into rotten timber in that it is noiseless and without haste. ”More than a century later, the social critic and breast cancer survivor Susan Sontag wrote, “Any important disease whose causality is murky and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance. . . . The disease itself becomes a metaphor.” Until the end of the twentieth century, a lexicon of defeat, doom, and desperation cloaked oncology.

Some of the gloom, however, had started to lift. The 2001 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) changed the definition of cancer for the first time in 111 years. In 1889, the OED had defined cancer as “a malignant growth or tumor in different parts of the body that tends to spread indefinitely and to reproduce itself and also to return after removal; it eats away or corrodes the part in which it is situated and generally ends in death.” 

The new definition labeled cancer as “what happens when a group of cells grow in a disorderly and uncontrollable way and invade neighboring tissues. They may or may not later spread into distant parts of the body. The cancer process is shared by over 200 diseases.” Gone were the metaphors of decay and hideous consumption. Gone was the near certainty of death.

An excerpt from "Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center", by James S. Olson, Ph.D.

Purchase the Book

Price: $35.00
Purchase the Book

Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 13:978-0801890567

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center