Timeline of cancer treatment breakthroughs

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

  • 1846

    Anaesthesia became widely available, with surgery becoming the treatment of choice over the next century.

  • 1894

    The radical mastectomy procedure was developed, revolutionising the treatment of primary breast cancer.

  • 1896

    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.

  • 1903

    The first successful brachytherapy treatment was delivered. Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiation therapy, where a radioactive source is placed beside or inside the tumour to deliver radiation over a period of time.

  • 1910

    The first less invasive laparoscopic surgical procedures on humans were published.

  • 1934

    Benefits of fractionated radiation therapy treatments were identified, where smaller doses of radiation are delivered over several weeks (allowing time for healthy cells to repair themselves).

  • 1940s

    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.

  • 1942

    Nitrogen mustard, a compound related to mustard gas, was found to successfully treat lymphoma. This lead to the development of several more effective ‘alkylating’ chemotherapy agents.

  • 1948

    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.

  • 1956

    Metastatic (advanced) cancer was first cured using a chemotherapy drug known as methotrexate.

  • 1960s

    Intraoperative radiation therapy treatment was introduced. This involves the delivery of radiation during the surgical removal of a tumour.

  • 1970s

    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.

  • 1975

    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.

  • 1979

    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.

  • 1982

    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.

  • 1992

    The clinical immune targeted antibody Herceptin was developed. Herceptin is regarded as a revolutionary immunotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

  • 1995

    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.

  • 1998

    Herceptin was approved by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic HER2+ breast cancer.

  • 2004

    Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) mutations were discovered in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), allowing personalised cancer treatments to be directly targeted to this biomarker (e.g. EGFR inhibitors).

    Bevacizumab, the first anti-angiogenic drug for the treatment of colon cancer, was approved.

  • 2009

    Gefitinib was approved for EGFR mutation-positive patients, following a milestone IPASS trial which confirmed the role of EGFR-TKIs in first line targeted therapy for patients with EGFR.

  • 2010

    The first autologous immunotherapy was approved for prostate cancer (Sipuleucel-T).

  • 2011

    The first checkpoint inhibitor (Ipilimumab, a CTLA-4 inhibitor protein) was approved for metastatic melanoma.

  • 2012

    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.

  • 2014

    The first immunotherapy PD-1 inhibitor (Nivolumab and Pembrolizumab) for metastatic melanoma was approved.

  • 2018

    The 2018 Nobel Prize was awarded to two cancer immunotherapy researchers, Dr James P. Allison, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for the discovery of CTLA-4, and Dr. Tasuku Honjo , Kyoto University in Japan, for the discovery of PD-1.

The role of research in cancer treatment breakthroughs

Cancer research plays an important role in the development of new cancer treatment breakthroughs. As Singapore’s only private provider delivering cancer clinical trials, Icon is dedicated to 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 our Research page.

To learn more about the treatments we offer at Icon, click here.


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. 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
  2. Ghossain A, Ghossain MA. History of mastectomy before and after Halsted. J Med Liban. 2009;57(2):65-71.
  3. Kelley WE Jr. The evolution of laparoscopy and the revolution in surgery in the decade of the 1990s. JSLS. 2008;12(4):351-357.
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Bernier J, Hall EJ, Giaccia A. Radiation oncology: a century of achievements. Nat Rev Cancer. 2004;4(9):737-747. doi:10.1038/nrc1451
  7. 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
  8. Kemikler G. History of Brachytherapy. Turk J Oncol. 2019;34(Supp 1):1–10. doi: 10.5505/tjo.2019.1
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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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