Cancer a man-made disease?

Posted by Allan McLachlan

Scientists claim cancer was almost unknown in ancient world

Controversy surrounds the recent study of ancient Egyptian mummies that found little evidence that people in the pre-industrial past ever suffered from cancer. The authors of the study concluded that cancer is a modern disease.

"This might be related to the prevalence of carcinogens in modern societies. Cancers are limited to societies that are affected by modern lifestyle issues, such as tobacco use and pollution resulting from industrialisation," they said.

Looking at analyses of tens of thousands of ancient skeletons and hundreds of mummies, Rosalie David of the University of Manchester, UK and Michael Zimmermann of Villanova University, Pennsylvania, found only a handful of cases of cancer. They also examined ancient texts and literature from Egypt and Greece, and say that there's little sign that cancer was a common ailment.

Rosalie David said: “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle. Yet again extensive ancient Egyptian data, along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address.”

But Dr Lesley Walker, director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK hit back at the findings: “The key thing about cancer is that we know it gets so much more common in older age. One thing that we absolutely know about ancient populations – including the Egyptians – is that their lifespan would have been much shorter than our lifespan is now. It’s inevitable that cancer would have been rarer, that it would have been harder to find cancer in those populations. And indeed, one of the major causes of death at a very early age would have been infectious disease in those populations. When we look at modern populations, one of the things that is absolutely clear is that around two-thirds of cancers occur in people who are over the age of sixty-five.  So, the first question that one would really want to ask is ‘how old were the people who were mummified when they died?’ Was the population of mummies age-standardised?”

Dr Walker also pointed out that while pollution is a factor in the incidence of cancer, it’s a very small one, contributing only a few per cent to the numbers of cancers that develop in any given year and in any given population. Other natural causes of cancer that we know about are ultra violet (UV) rays from the sun; bacteria and viruses cause a number of cancers, and account for around 20 per cent of cancers worldwide.

The oldest documented case of cancer hails from ancient Egypt, around 1500 BC. The details were recorded on a papyrus, documenting eight cases of tumours on the breast. The Egyptians treated it with a hot instrument called the fire drill which cauterised it. Greek physician Hippocrates  used the Greek words, carcinos and carcinoma to describe tumours, thus calling cancer karkinos.  Hippocrates believed that the body was composed of four fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. He believed that an excess of black bile in any given site in the body caused cancer. This was the general thought of the cause of cancer for the next 1400 years. In ancient Egypt, it was believed cancer was caused by the Gods.

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