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Cancer Res. 2009 Mar 15;69(6):2151-62. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-0416. Epub 2009 Mar 10.

Landmarks in the history of cancer epidemiology.

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  • 1Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, NIH, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

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  • Cancer Res. 2009 Aug 15;69(16):6758.


The application of epidemiology to cancer prevention is relatively new, although observations of the potential causes of cancer have been reported for more than 2,000 years. Cancer was generally considered incurable until the late 19th century. Only with a refined understanding of the nature of cancer and strategies for cancer treatment could a systematic approach to cancer prevention emerge. The 20th century saw the elucidation of clues to cancer causation from observed associations with population exposures to tobacco, diet, environmental chemicals, and other exogenous factors. With repeated confirmation of such associations, researchers entertained for the first time the possibility that cancer, like many of the infectious diseases of the time, might be prevented. By the mid-20th century, with antibiotics successfully addressing the majority of infectious diseases and high blood pressure treatment beginning to affect the prevalence of heart disease in a favorable direction, the focus of much of epidemiology shifted to cancer. The early emphasis was on exploring, in greater depth, the environmental, dietary, hormonal, and other exogenous exposures for their potential associations with increased cancer risk. The first major breakthrough in identifying a modifiable cancer risk factor was the documentation of an association between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. During the past four decades, epidemiologic studies have generated population data identifying risk factors for cancers at almost every body site, with many cancers having multiple risk factors. The development of technologies to identify biological molecules has facilitated the incorporation of these molecular manifestations of biological variation into epidemiologic studies, as markers of exposure as well as putative surrogate markers of cancer outcome. This technological trend has, during the past two decades, culminated in emphasis on the identification of genetic variants and their products as correlates of cancer risk, in turn, creating opportunities to incorporate the discipline of molecular/genetic epidemiology into the study of cancer prevention. Epidemiology will undoubtedly continue contributing to cancer prevention by using traditional epidemiologic study designs to address broad candidate areas of interest, with molecular/genetic epidemiology investigations honing in on promising areas to identify specific factors that can be modified with the goal of reducing risk.

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