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Hercules was fighting a nine-headed serpent when another critter decided to join the fray. The crab was sent by the goddess Hera, who didn’t exactly get along with Hercules. The crab clamped down on the strongman’s toe and wouldn’t let go. This fight didn’t last long, though — Hercules crushed the crab with his foot. But as a reward for its sacrifice, Hera placed the crab in the stars — as the constellation Cancer.
The crab is about a third of the way up the eastern sky at nightfall, just above the brilliant planet Jupiter. It isn’t much to look at, though. In fact, even its brightest stars are probably too faint to see from a light-polluted city.
The constellation is home to one of the most prominent star clusters, known as the Beehive. It’s visible through binoculars as a sparkly patch of stars.
Like the constellation, the disease known as cancer was named for the crab. About 2400 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was examining tumors in cancer patients. He called the tumors “karkinos” — the Greek word for “crab.” No one is sure just why; perhaps it was because the tumors were hard, like a crab shell.
A few centuries later, a Roman writer picked up the term, using the Latin word for crab — cancer. And later still, another doctor noted that the network of veins around a tumor resembled a crab’s legs — solidifying the name for this terrible disease — a name it shares with the faintest constellation of the zodiac.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014