A hundred years from now chemotherapy may be looked back upon the way we view bloodletting today; a barbarous rite of pre-enlightened medicine. For almost 2,000 years sincere physicians drained copious amounts of the vital fluid to relieve their patients of “bad blood.”
The practice was proposed by the best scientific minds of the day and based on observation of the body itself, specifically menstruation. None other than the father of medicine, Hippocrates—who gave us the word “cancer”—believed menstruation purged women of bad humors. His most famous student, Galen, began physician-initiated bloodletting in the second century.
Bloodletting was once used to treat cancer, along with everything else from cholera to diabetes, herpes to leprosy, plague to pneumonia, and scurvy to smallpox. The earliest recorded cancer treatment comes from the Egyptians, who used a “fire drill” to cauterize tumors.
Medical science lurches forward by trial and error. Even great advances sometimes have unforeseen consequences. A popular theory regarding how AIDS entered the human population posits that it came from chimps whose organs and fluids were used in culturing a strand of oral polio vaccine used in the Congo, the epicenter of the pandemic.
Never mind inadvertent danger, modern chemo causes tons of collateral damage. It is a shotgun that indiscriminately kills both terrorists and hostages. But for many forms of cancer, it’s the best weapon we have right now. That’s why I put myself in the line of fire six times, and why I feel like rancid Swiss cheese this week.