While knowledge of cancer and initial treatment interventions have been around for hundreds of years, it is only within the last two centuries that significant advances in cancer treatment have taken place. From surgery through to the latest in immunotherapy, learn more about the timeline of cancer treatment breakthroughs below.
Timeline of cancer treatment breakthroughs
Anaesthesia became widely available, with surgery becoming the treatment of choice over the next century.
Oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovaries) was established as a treatment for breast cancer, identifying the link between the hormone oestrogen and breast cancer and paving the way for modern hormone therapy treatment.
German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen unveiled the ‘x-ray’ and within months, systems were developed to harness the x-ray and use this for diagnosis. Over the following three years, doctors began using radiation for the treatment of cancer.
The first less invasive laparoscopic surgical procedures on humans were published.
The link between prostate cancer and the hormone testosterone was identified. This led to the development of drugs that block male hormones to effectively treat prostate cancer over the following decades.
The compound aminopterin, a predecessor to common chemotherapy drug methotrexate, was first used on children with acute leukaemia which resulted in remission. This was a pivotal moment in the development of modern chemotherapy.
Intraoperative radiation therapy treatment was introduced. This involves the delivery of radiation during the surgical removal of a tumour.
Imaging tests such as ultrasound and CT, MRI and PET scans began replacing the need for exploratory surgeries. Surgery also began to move towards less radical procedures, such as lumpectomy rather than radical mastectomy for breast cancer.
Adjuvant chemotherapy was successfully used in the treatment of breast cancer.
This was also the year that monoclonal antibodies (replicas of proteins made by the body’s immune system to fight viruses) were first produced, which lead to the development of antibody-based immunotherapies for cancer over the following decades.
The antibody and antigen that would lead to the development of immunotherapy drug Rituxan were discovered. Rituxan was the first therapeutic antibody approved for oncology patients and is used in the treatment of lymphoma.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy was invented, a highly precise radiation therapy technique which delivers high doses of radiation to cancerous tumours, while limiting the impact of radiation on healthy surrounding tissue.
A new radiation therapy technique, known as stereotactic radiation therapy, was invented. By using precise technology stereotactic radiation therapy can be delivered in one to five treatments, compared to traditional radiation therapy which delivers smaller doses over many weeks.
The Gardasil vaccine received TGA approval, leading to the launch of the world’s first national HPV vaccination program in Australia
Adaptive radiation therapy, a type of image-guided radiation therapy that allows radiation oncologists to replan and optimise the treatment during the course, was introduced.
Cancer research plays an important role in the development of new cancer treatment breakthroughs. Icon proudly offers Australia’s largest private cancer clinical trials program, providing hope and opportunity for cancer patients to access new treatments and helping us to improve cancer care for people now and into the future. It is these trials and the doctors and patients involved today, that advance the way we can treat cancer tomorrow. For more information on clinical trials at Icon, visit iconcancercentre.com.au/research.
- American Cancer Society. (2014). Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Surgery. Retrieved on 29 April 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-surgery.html
- Ghossain A, Ghossain MA. History of mastectomy before and after Halsted. J Med Liban. 2009;57(2):65-71.
- Kelley WE Jr. The evolution of laparoscopy and the revolution in surgery in the decade of the 1990s. JSLS. 2008;12(4):351-357.
- American Cancer Society. (2014). Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Hormone Therapy. Retrieved on 29 April 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-hormone-therapy.html
- Richard R. Love, John Philips, Oophorectomy for Breast Cancer: History Revisited, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 94, Issue 19, 2 October 2002, Pages 1433–1434, https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/94.19.1433
- Bernier J, Hall EJ, Giaccia A. Radiation oncology: a century of achievements. Nat Rev Cancer. 2004;4(9):737-747. doi:10.1038/nrc1451
- Gianfaldoni S, Gianfaldoni R, Wollina U, Lotti J, Tchernev G, Lotti T. An Overview on Radiotherapy: From Its History to Its Current Applications in Dermatology. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2017;5(4):521-525. Published 2017 Jul 18. doi:10.3889/oamjms.2017.122
- Kemikler G. History of Brachytherapy. Turk J Oncol. 2019;34(Supp 1):1–10. doi: 10.5505/tjo.2019.1
- American Cancer Society. (2014). Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Radiation. Retrieved on 29 April 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-radiation.html
- Pilar A, Gupta M, Ghosh Laskar S, Laskar S. Intraoperative radiotherapy: review of techniques and results. Ecancermedicalscience. 2017;11:750. Published 2017 Jun 29. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2017.750
- American Cancer Society. (2014). Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy. Retrieved on 29 April 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-chemo.html
- American Cancer Society. (2014). Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Immunotherapy. Retrieved on 29 April 2020 fromhttps://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-immunotherapy.html
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