How the ancient world dealt with cancer
October 14th, 2010
06:15 PM ET

How the ancient world dealt with cancer

Cancer is widespread today, but it doesn't appear to have been in the ancient world. Why not?

Researchers are learning more about the history of cancer and how civilizations have treated it.

A study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer suggests that cancer has become a more common disease only recently, because of modern lifestyle.

Rosalie David, professor at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and Michael Zimmerman, professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, explored the evidence of cancer in the fossil record of early humans, in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece. They argue that modern carcinogens - such as tobacco and pollution - may have contributed to the apparent rise in cancer in the last several hundred years.

However, there are many reasons why this is a tenuous conclusion: No one can conduct a survey of ancient populations. The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently. Cancer is also highly genetic. To say that pollution has helped make cancer prevalent is highly controversial, said James Olson, historian at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

But certainly smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise all contribute to cancer in the modern world, Olson said.

Still, the paper makes some interesting points about the historical record of cancer, he said.

There are very few indications of cancer in early human remains, and possibilities that have been found have been disputed, the analysis said. In Egypt, out of hundreds of mummies only one case of cancer has been confirmed: Zimmerman's experiments on modern mummified tissue suggest that mummification does not destroy evidence of the malignancy - he and colleagues found colorectal cancer in a mummy.

The ancient Egyptians wrote about many magical spells they used to treat cancer-like illnesses, a few of which are described in papyri. Here's one particularly gruesome remedy for what may have been cancer of the uterus: Break up a stone in water, leave it overnight, and then pour it into the vagina. Another treatment described was fumigation: The patient would sit over something that was burning. Still, it's not certain that any of the maladies described were actually cancer, David said.

Ancient Greece first identified cancer as a specific illness, the analysis said. It appears that the Greeks had a better knowledge and awareness of cancer than their predecessors, which is a more likely explanation than an increase in cancer, David and Zimmerman said.

In Ancient Greece, cancer gets referenced in the Hippocratic Corpus- texts said to have been written by the "father of medicine" Hippocrates between 410 and 360 B.C.
These texts say that an excess of black bile causes cancer. "Hippocrates used the carcinos (crab) and carcinoma to desribe a range of tumours and swellings," David and Zimmerman wrote. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamum said around 200 A.D. that this was because some cancers appeared crab-like.

Ancient Greeks knew that a mastectomy would help a patient with a lump in her breast, but they also recognized that cancer can recur and spread to other parts of the body.

"They recommended an unbelievable variety of potions, and plant extracts, and combinations to see if they couldn’t kill the cancer in other places," Olson said. "None of those worked."

It can be argued that since life expectancy was lower in the ancient world, most people didn't live long enough to develop cancer, David said. But the lack of evidence of childhood bone cancer suggests that perhaps overall rates were lower as well, she said.

From about 500 to 1500 A.D. there was little advancement in understanding cancer, the analysis said. Then, in the 17th century, Wilhelm Fabricus described operations for breast and other cancers. Cancer rates appear to have increased since the Industrial Revolution, David said. In the past 200 years, reports of specific cancers such as scrotal cancer and Hodgkin's disease have emerged.

Here's an overview from the American Cancer Society of the history of cancer.

soundoff (2,770 Responses)
  1. Skippy

    The most under emphasized point of the study is that, by and large, people simply didnt live long enough in the ancient world to get cancer.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Victoria

      It's very clearly emphasized. "The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently."

      October 14, 2010 at 19:33 | Report abuse |
    • thor

      reading the article is overrated.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
    • zachariah Heathwaite

      "skippy" the detail skipper

      October 14, 2010 at 20:14 | Report abuse |
    • CWAJGA

      Actually, you're all wrong. It's emphasized in the article about the study, which was posted by Elizabeth Landau and which cites the comments of James Olsen concerning the study (duh). However, it's pretty clear from the 5th sentence in the article about the study, that the conclusion drawn by the study's British and American authors does in fact, underemphasize the fact that people in ancient times did not live long enough to get cancer. So, I bet you all feel pretty stupid now, huh?

      October 14, 2010 at 20:55 | Report abuse |
    • Bensky

      Science is about asking questions. And the only stupid question is the one not asked. Yes, age is a factor .... and we are reminded so is lifestyle. Choose your poison.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:26 | Report abuse |
    • lanfear

      "The most under emphasized point of the study is that, by and large, people simply didnt live long enough in the ancient world to get cancer."

      But that is incorrect. It is in fact emphasized in the study. If you read it you will see.

      Just accept that you didn't read it and that you are wrong 🙂

      October 14, 2010 at 21:39 | Report abuse |
    • AM

      Skippy – they're right. You said it was "underemphasized' but it's pretty clear in the story. You need to learn how to take criticism.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:46 | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      I love Lamp.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:49 | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      I guess they should've underlined "The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently," used a bold red font, and ended the sentence with an exclamation point.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:54 | Report abuse |
    • HIV +

      Skippy just admit you didn't read the article. Your comment and replies make you look pretty stupid. It's clearly emphasized and reported throughout the article that people in ancient times didn't live long enough to get cancer

      October 14, 2010 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
    • D Shaver

      I think you mean the 6th sentence. And there's the fact that it is not only emphasized, but also directly addressed in the article. The second to last paragraph brings up the fact that lower life expectancies alone do not explain all the data.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:38 | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      I agree. As I was reading the first few sentences I was thinking that of course the answer is that we did not live very long in ancient times. It gets one line in the fourth paragraph and then another at the end.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:39 | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      While it's true that a lot of cancers occur later in life a lot also occur early in life. To say people just didn't live long enough to get cancer is foolish, many children get cancer, many young adults do too. They point out that they've found no evidence of childhood cancers as well, that alone has to say something. Stop and think right now, how many people do you know at this moment who have cancer and/or who have survived or died of cancer. I think you'll be surprised when you start doing the math, and not all of them will be over 35...

      October 14, 2010 at 22:54 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      That and the fact that people back then didn't grow up in an irradiated world, thanks to nuclear detonations from the late 1940's until the 1970's with a few exceptions after (thanks, China and Israel) and a couple of nuclear reactor accidents (thanks, UK and Russia).
      THEN, add a chemical stew that is in our food and drinks, of which at least one ingredient has been recalled per year.
      THEN add in various steroids, hormones and other drugs in our food.
      THEN add pesticide residue in our fruits and veggies.
      THEN, to top it all off, sitting day in and day out in a bath of microwave energy, courtesy of our communications systems, the strongest of which are our cell phones.
      Can't figure out WHY the cancer rate in the young is so much higher today. Not at all!

      October 15, 2010 at 00:32 | Report abuse |
    • kazz


      October 15, 2010 at 01:45 | Report abuse |
    • veggiedude

      "the lack of evidence of childhood bone cancer suggests that perhaps overall rates were lower as well"

      Did you overlook that part? Cancer is a western problem probably due to diet and environment. In the third world, it is hardly known.

      October 15, 2010 at 03:03 | Report abuse |
    • stan turecki

      "people didnt grow up in an irradiated world" says Wzrd1. sorry. that has nothing to do with it. we get about 1 millirem of radiation on average from all of the world's nuke testing and reactor accidents. to put this in comparison you get about 40 millirem from the carbon 14 and potassium 40 thats naturally in your body. you get an additional 30 millirem from cosmic rays – make that 50 if you live in denver. you get over 200 millirem from naturally occurring radon gas. all told you get about 360 to 600 millirem (depending on where you live) on average from all sources of radiation. the amount of radiation you get from man's mastery of the atom is statistically insignificant.

      October 15, 2010 at 06:31 | Report abuse |
    • sasv

      Im havent read all the comments and am not sure if this poitn has already come up, but i have a strong suspicion that we have a higher rate of cancer these days is simply because we have much better ways of detecting.

      in the past cancers might have passed for any other severe ailment without people being the wiser

      October 15, 2010 at 07:07 | Report abuse |
    • Christian

      Except people *did* live long in the past. Socrates was 71, and he was forced to commit suicide. Aristophanes was in his 60s. Euripides was 74. Plato was 80. Caesar Augustus was in his 70s. Cicero was 63 when he was murdered.

      What everyone is doing is confusing median age with longevity. Sure the average lifespan prior to the 19th century was somewhere around 45. But that was because of all the death at childbirth (both mother and child) and childhood diseases. If you survived birth and your first bout of smallpox (and didn't get sent off to war), you had a more than reasonable chance to make it into your 60s. Human beings have always been able to live into their 90s even without modern medicine (in American history, both Ben Franklin and John Adams died in their 80s and 90s. Washington was in his late 60s when he died, and many believe it was his doctor's methods to treat an illness that killed him, not the illness itself). The median age has risen dramatically over the course of the last century simply because children have a much higher survival rate now.

      So the argument that cancer wouldn't be as likely to exist in earlier times because people didn't live as long is flawed. People lived long enough to contract cancer. What is notable in the examples I provided is that there are no extant commentary (at least that I've discovered) that people were amazed that Plato or Benjamin Franklin lived so long. If Franklin being in his 80s or Adams being in his 90s was extraordinarily significant, it would've been commented on. It wasn't.

      October 15, 2010 at 07:48 | Report abuse |
    • James Stiger

      This article is kinda MISLEADING, mainly because it leads the reader to assume that cancer was as prevalent as it is today.
      The simple fact is over the relatively short amount of time that we have been recording cancer world wide cases have increased.

      Even when adjusting figures to take into consideration that increased screening and better technology leads to higher detection we still have a significantly higher rate of cancer that just 50 years ago.

      October 15, 2010 at 08:15 | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Not only did they mention it, they also mentioned lower relative occurrences of childhood bone-cancers.

      Some cancers occur at younger ages, you can still compare cancer occurrence within an age group and get a useful relationship from it, indicating higher or lower occurrences of cancer.

      October 15, 2010 at 08:35 | Report abuse |
    • Kmjoen230

      Seriously Skippy? It talks about it more than once. Unless you expected to read a medical journal, I think it emphasized it well.

      October 15, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse |
    • LJP

      Good God you people need to relax! I really don't think it's worth picking a fight over especially since the points your are arguing are trivial and you're all saying the same thing. It's arguing just for the sake of arguing. Do something productive; go rake some leaves or clean the toilet.

      October 15, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse |
    • Sky

      With the research I have personally done, about the ancient world and rare books I've collected over the years. I don't believe people live longer now. From the start of Sumeria and the gods, our food ( spice ) quality was better. People have cancer now because of the food they eat. I research food greatly, and majority of you are eating pasteurized dead chemicals. From your milk, meat, breads and snacks. The body cannot live a long healthy life from this, the risk of cancer goes up with the quality of elements your body is receiving. We have a population who maybe fat, but deep down is starving from the correct elements.

      Cancer has found many cures, sadly the cancer foundation makes big bucks. They discount the Gerson Therapy and other individuals who have a high success rate. My mother cured lumps in her breasts by taking dairy out of her diet completely. The lumps were gone within the month. Let food be thou medicine and medicine be thou food.

      October 15, 2010 at 09:40 | Report abuse |
    • jamie

      cancer is a mudaf****ing bitch

      October 15, 2010 at 09:43 | Report abuse |
    • bobo

      this thread is funny

      October 15, 2010 at 10:08 | Report abuse |
    • d

      Skippy - I was thinking the same thing while reading the article. However at the end (the penultimate paragraph) they do address it a little more, that probably should have been moved further up front.

      October 15, 2010 at 10:20 | Report abuse |
    • d

      One clarification on life expectancy for those interested. The life expectancy today is around 75 years for people born in rich nations. In more ancient times this number is significantly lower, largely due to early childhood death, particularly the first year.

      A more meaningful measure of life expectancy in relation to this article, is to only people who have already survived the rough few years. If you choose 10 years as a cutoff, the us number becomes ~76 years old. The ancient roman number would be ~51 (up from 25-35 numbers of an infant).

      So yes infant mortality plays a large role in life expectancy, but it still leaves a ~20 year gap, the years when cancer is more and more common in our society.

      October 15, 2010 at 10:36 | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Life expectancy is too much higher now. It appears like a vast difference because child mortality was so high

      October 15, 2010 at 11:21 | Report abuse |
    • QD2

      I'm not so sure that's the case. Granted, most people didn't live as long as we do in the modern sense, but cancer doesn't really pick an age.

      October 15, 2010 at 11:40 | Report abuse |
    • James

      Although there are several prominent cases of people living into their 50's-70's in the ancient world one also has to look at the fact that these were also fairly affluent people. Millions if nt billions of people died far younger due to poor health and nutrition. also the information based on the mummies is only taking people who were mummified, which would cut out quite a few people who did not nave the money to preserve the body. I also wonder if underreporting of causes of death were taken into account, after all "Natural Causes" used to be a blanket cause of death for many people. Modern foods, with genetic engineering and chemicals and other unhealthy choices such as smoking, drinking and heavy reliance on fast food has increased the prevalence of cancers.

      October 15, 2010 at 12:04 | Report abuse |
    • Derek

      Skippy, I found three instances: paragraph 5, 10 and 14, all referring to the point you claim is absent. I'd like you and everyone else to notice that I provided concrete examples while leaving out petty insults. Try it sometime.

      October 15, 2010 at 12:57 | Report abuse |
    • doodle

      1. Was thee a mummy over the age of 40? From my understanding, most were dead before then, and few lived long lives.

      October 15, 2010 at 13:04 | Report abuse |
    • Thinker67

      Skippy, you are typical of the journalist that attempts to use flawed scientific analysis to prove some obscure point.
      Common sense why there are more reports of cancer today.
      1) It is detectable
      2) It is identifiable pre or post mortem
      3) Our patient base is in the BILLIONS as opposed to 10's of millions.
      4) Life expectancies are higher - more time for oncogenic mutations to occur. Life expectancies back then were in the 30's.
      5) Benzene, Asbestos, radiation, skin cancer etc....

      Look, if you wanted to do a meaningful study, why didn't you do a correlation between processed foods and the rates of cancer/heart disease/diabetes in developing countries vs. industrialized modern ones? Oh I forgot. This is CNN. That kind of study would be meaningful.

      October 15, 2010 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
    • Thinker67

      Apologies to Skippy. It went to you instead of Ms. Landau.

      October 15, 2010 at 16:37 | Report abuse |
    • markglicken

      So we must bow down to the Lords of medicine for keeping us alive past 21 years old? That is BS. The first ten U.S. presidents lived to an average of 78 years. Any of them die of cancer?

      October 15, 2010 at 22:21 | Report abuse |
    • Constantine

      My sentiments exactly – its true the study should be marked as inconclusive

      October 16, 2010 at 23:33 | Report abuse |
    • ray

      cancer is not an age thing. Kids are born with it. Read Genesis Noah was 425 years old when he died & started building the ark when he was 125 years old. If want spin listen to the secular world & if you want truth look around & find some common sense.There is a cure for cancer but as long as the medical field is an industry, to cure cancer would be bad for business. Let me clue everybody in on what cancer is, it's rotting of the body plain & simple, it stinks of rot. This should'nt happen to you until your dead & your immune system quits working. So lets find what organism does this to living cells & what the triggers are. I know?

      October 19, 2010 at 12:19 | Report abuse |
    • ray

      If you were to get a heart transplant and did'nt recieve a truck load pills to supress the immune system you would die because the immune army would eject the heart from your body. why because over two thirds of the cells in your body is your immune system. So who ever designed & built us must have seen that disease & sickness would follow us. Somebody please tell me why a cell as small as cancer is not recognized by the immune system & eliminated, but a 2 lb heart is. When we find the answer we'll cure cancer. do'nt wait for the medical business thers no money in a cure. A cure is not rocket science a caveman can do it.

      October 19, 2010 at 13:22 | Report abuse |
    • pilot2969

      Personally I think the under emphasized point in this article is that we all die, regardless.

      October 28, 2010 at 08:33 | Report abuse |
    • Hmm

      But isn't expected lifespan a relative term.. that is, if ancient people didn't live as long as modern humans, then shouldn't they have been as susceptible to disease to modern counterparts, and die at a younger age.. therefore, cancer would have been just as prevlent all other things being equal?

      October 28, 2010 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
    • mike

      useless article. nothing new,

      November 18, 2010 at 22:45 | Report abuse |
    • Daisy

      Give me a break – didn't you all read his comment before criticizing – he didn't say it wasn't emphasized or not emphasized at all, his comment was it was UNDER emphasized. Geesh

      November 19, 2010 at 13:37 | Report abuse |
    • AAL648

      Dr. Stephen Stray is correct in his assessment. This point not only should not be emphasized – it simply is not true, and should be edited or omitted (in fact this may be one of the worst written news articles I have seen recently). Average – I repeat, average – lifespan in the ancient world was lower due to higher rates of childhood – particularly infant/newborn – mortality. If one lived past this young age however, lifespan in the ancient world was much, much closer to current levels then is described in this article.

      November 24, 2010 at 15:35 | Report abuse |
  2. Tom

    "A study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer suggests that cancer has become a more common disease only recently, because of modern lifestyle."

    Not due to modern lifestyle, but modern longevity. Most cancers (80-90%) happen after age 50. Guess the average age of death 2000-3000 years ago and you have much of the reason no cancers were found in those mummies. Then you figure in the rate of cancers in the population, again, below age 50. Kind of hard to find the 1% and 2% rates in a couple hundred mummies. So many people died of other things, they didn't get a chance to die from cancer.

    Have more causes of cancer appeared in modern days? Definitely yes. Was there a golden era when everyone was healthy? Definitely no. Would you rather die of cancer in your 60s, tuberculosis in your 20s, whooping cough at 3? These days we have a very good chance of choosing "none of the above".

    October 14, 2010 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vickeyd

      Tom..thank you. You are the only one who actually makes some kind of sense. please people...quit the sniping..it does not look good on you.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:54 | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Good point Tom. The other point that no one ever talks about is that back in the "olden days" people died of old age. Now we are always diagnosed with a cause of death. There also wasn't something called OSHA back then. People died young from injuries from dangerous living and working environments. People also died of many types of infections and diseases we don't even consider a serious illness now. When healthcare improves (which regardless of what people say its improving ever day) people still have to die of something. That something is either a type of cancer, or a type of heart disease usually ending in the person passing due to pneumonia.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:24 | Report abuse |
    • D

      You forgot to mention that there are many more people alive today, as well as, medical conditions being much more recognizable and documented.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:30 | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      Yes, you are posting this unsubstantiated hypothesis all over but tell it to my niece's boyfriend, who just died of cancer at 24. Or my friend's son, who died of cancer at 14. Or two of my old friends from school who died at 43. Yes, we are living longer, but it seems like more people of dying of cancer generally, at every age. My great grandparents lived to be in their 90's and not one had cancer, but in my grandparent's generation, it was everywhere. You seemed to discount what someone said below, but I think you are kidding yourself if you don't think the environment has something to do with it. Pesticides, pollution, smoking, convenience foods (and all the chemicals that go with them), BPA.

      October 14, 2010 at 23:21 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Unmentioned is the increase in childhood cancers.
      Consider the increase in cancers from the 1940's through the 1970's, all directly attributable to nuclear fallout, secondary to the infatuation for above surface nuclear detonation testing. With a few added in after from China and one water burst thanks to Israel.
      THEN add in some slightly localized (actually highly localized in the UK from one air cooled nuclear reactor where the fuel caught fire and a fair amount of radioactive contamination went all about the country side. Add to that the disaster of Chernobyl spreading radioactive fallout over the better part of the northern hemisphere.
      We can now determine when and where someone was born and raised, just from strontium 90 amounts in their bones!
      Yes, aging is most certainly a large portion of the reason for a higher cancer rate today. But we also have our stupidity of the past to thank for elevate risks in the younger crowd. And we didn't even have to talk about demon tobacco.

      October 15, 2010 at 00:40 | Report abuse |
    • PBD

      Quite true, Tom. David and Zimmerman might be fine archeologists, but epidemiologists they are not. David's comment about childhood bone cancer shows how her lack of understanding- the rate of bone cancer (osteosarcoma) in children is one in 200,000- OF COURSE they didn't find any! I doubt that enough thorough autopsies of mummies have been done to make any claims whatsoever about the rate of cancer. The article states out of hundreds of mummies only one case of cancer has been found. Have all of those mummies really been thoroughly autopsied? I doubt it, they're too expensive to perform and would damage the mummies.. So given the age of the population and the difficulty of diagnosing cancer in 4000 year old subjects, the low frequency doesn't surprise me at all. And there are some cancers that simply can't be diagnosed in a mummy- leukemia being the most obvious, and it's the most common cancer of childhood.

      There are also many things that could have caused cancer then that we avoid now. Poor food preservation being at the top of the list. Stomach cancer used to be much more common when salt was used to preserve food. The molds and bacteria they had on their stored grains could have produced carcinogenic toxins.

      The article also alludes to another problem- detection bias. The Egyptians didn't diagnose cancer because they didn't know what it was. It's a very diverse collection of illnesses that on the surface seem to have nothing in common. As medical science progressed, you see much more cancer being diagnosed- not because there's more of it, but that it's being recognized for what it is.

      It's fun to speculate, but that's all this article is. Speculation based on a poor understanding of medicine and epidemiology. Ar least Professor Olson has it right.

      October 15, 2010 at 05:00 | Report abuse |
    • Eddy

      Another factor to consider is, the average person from 2000 years ago is not going to be mummified. This was reserved for the wealthy and powerful. Naturally they lived in better conditions than the slaves or vassals under them. Not only that but the vassals also couldn't necessarily afford a doctor or treatment or to have stone tablets engraved describing treatment. There are too many factors affecting our ability to accurately collect statistics on cancer from anything over 150 years ago.
      Another way to put it, there are religious groups who don't accept modern medical care even today. They live much like our ancestors did with an average life span of 45 to 50 with a few incredibly lucky ones (blessed by God) who happen to hit 90. If you look at the "statistics" they never get cancer, but that's only because it's never reported...

      October 15, 2010 at 09:58 | Report abuse |
    • PBD Jr

      Finally somebody gets it!!! Thank you PBD for enlightening people, your post was the first that really seemed to fully grasp what everyone else was missing. You can't make ANY kind of claim about a population without really examining a statistically significant portion OF that population, which they haven't (and won't be able to). Only examining the rich and wealthy (that could afford or were honored with mummification/better burial process) also will create a very biased selection population because they ate better food, had better living conditions and lived a healthier lifestyle overall.

      And on top of that the majority of the cancers they should look for, they can't even detect 1000 to 4000 years later. This paper really proves absolutely nothing, just goes into someones speculations without being able to back it up. This doesn't mean that they're necessarily wrong (although they likely are, and it is VERY sad that in science today the people making the wildest claims get the most attention, which leads to more outlandish speculations like this one), but unfortunately they'll never be able to gather the data to prove whether it is right or wrong.

      Also the diagnosis of pretty much ALL complex and difficult to diagnose diseases has gone up since the industrial age, because we're finally able to correctly diagnose things to find the real cause. Most diseases we recognize to cause death today aren't technically the "cause of death", they lead to pneumonia or other types of respiratory failure (or septicemia etc., which my grandfather died of due to his cancer), so back in the day they would chalk that down as the cause of the death, because they didn't understand THAT was really caused by something else behind the scenes, which we do today.

      October 15, 2010 at 10:59 | Report abuse |
    • iubrian

      Really spot on comment. I don't think you're saying modern environmental factors cannot play a role in causing cancer, tobacco use being a prime example. The objection is to the inference of these types of studies: That our modern way of life is inherently harmful. While there may be chemicals that exist in modern society that are potentially carcinogenic, it seems that life expectancy is far and away the most significant factor in explaining the alleged lower incidence of cancer in the ancient world.

      Despite some of the comments, and individual cases of people living to old age in the ancient world, until modern times, the average life expectancy has been around 30-40 years of age. In ancient Egypt, life expectancy at birth was between 20-30 years of age, infant mortality in the first year of life was 30%, 1st to 5th birthday was 20%, and average age of grown-ups at death was 30-40. And this rate is fairly consistent with what has been observed until modern times. Compare that with now, where the life expectancy at birth in the modern world is approx. 75 years. Even in the 3rd world, life expectancy at birth is currently comparable to what it was in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, citing the lack of incidence of childhood bone cancer is hardly surprising, given its rarity, an incidence rate of approximately 1 in113,333.

      It’s not that elements of modern lifestyle can’t cause cancer, it’s that you can’t claim it’s more common “because of modern lifestyle” because most people, until the last 200 years, didn’t live long enough to experience it. Even to the extent that you can argue that there are byproducts of our modern way of life that didn’t exist before that contribute to an increase in the rate of cancer, it’s apparent that far more people live by virtue of a modern way of life than die from it.

      October 15, 2010 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
    • nortel1

      All health advances are related: If you have leukemia as a child, you have a huge risk of infection and anemia. Today we have antibiotics and anemia treatments so you will survive to die from leukemia. even 100 years ago, you would have died from the infection or anemia. There's no way to really know from past non-autopsy records if someone 1000 years ago died from pnemonia alone or couldn't survive pnemonia because they had lung cancer.

      October 15, 2010 at 17:34 | Report abuse |
    • SquarePeg58

      Although we don't know very much about cancer in ancient societies, mainly because we have only a very few remains of the billions of humans that have inhabited this planet over the millenia, what we do know is that in societies with different diets, the cancer rates today are incredibly different. "The China Study" reports on some of that evidence. Another important fact is that modern religious groups that eschew many substances and foods (Seventh Day Adventists for example) actually do have lower rates of cancer overall than the American public. Add to that the increase seen in cancer in groups who have been closely followed medically for the last 75 years, such as the Mormons, as they increase the amount of processed foods and exposure to environmental toxins, and it becomes pretty clear, at least to me, that the best predictor of cancer lies largely in minimizing exposure to environmental toxins, to processed foods, and to known carcinogens like tobacco.

      One of the other posters had it right–it isn't the "average" age of death that is important. As a historian, I concur with him that if one was able to survive a treacherous childhood, childbirth, accident, or war, one could reasonably expect to live into the 70's, 80's, or even 90's. That goes for both rich and poor–although the rich actually had a higher chance of dying from diseases such as gout, heart diseases, etc., because of their rich diet including a high amount of meat. Historically speaking, it was not the poor who died of those things, they died of more violent things such as accidents related to the hard working conditions in which they lived. Chimney sweeps and such of course suffered higher rates of cancer because of the toxic environment in which they worked, just as coal miners died of lung illnesses. Farmers, on the other hand, could expect to live long and relatively healthy lives.

      October 21, 2010 at 16:18 | Report abuse |
  3. Jim

    There is a cancer center on every block. Just about every family I associate with has a family member battling cancer – at age 30,40, 50 and 60. We are slowly and methodically poisoning ourselves. There are currently more than 85,000 chemical compounds in our lives and 250 have been tested for reaction and determent. At the turn of the century cancer was rare, now its 1 in 6 people will get some form...

    October 14, 2010 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • thor

      you have to die from something.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
    • Hilary Bensimon

      I agree! It is an epidemic, but at the same time maybe it is okay. There are too many of us anyway. Less people would bring more balance for the planet no?

      October 14, 2010 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
    • Skippy

      And most every one of those cancer centers is a *FOR* profit center.... Do keep in mind that in 1900, the life expectancy was 47 years of age. Only one person in 25 had then survived to age 60. The report, “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2003,” prepared by CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), shows life expectancy at 77.6 years in 2003, up from 77.3 in 2002. The fact of the matter is that people of dying of FEWER things now than they were at the turn of the century. You are letting the world frighten you too much.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:02 | Report abuse |
    • lanfear

      Must be an American thing. I don't have that problem up in Canada. I don't know ANYONE with cancer.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:43 | Report abuse |
    • Raider

      Same here Ianfear, I don't know a single person with Cancer or know anyone who has mentioned that they know someone with it. I live in Winnipeg Manitoba.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:15 | Report abuse |
    • TJ

      An American thing...I don't think so, just very fortunate for you. My mother's side of the family is entirely Canadian and 6 of them have died from cancer...in Canada. Not all blood relatives, but related through marriage, and each a different type of cancer.

      October 14, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse |
    • Yummy

      I live in Toronto and we know many people who have or have had cancer. Just recently, a 32 year old friend was diagnosed with leukemia. Many Canadians smoke, drink, eat bad food, etc... not that all cancer patients participate in risky lifestyles.

      Try again.

      October 14, 2010 at 23:48 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      For the Canadians, I'll just suggest this. For those most heavily afflicted, consider the normal air currents from New Mexico and Nevada to Canada, then remember what caused some rather loud noises back in the 40's til the '70's.
      Then, you'll understand a bit of it. And consider that the Canadian government won't acknowledge that they were aware of it, for fear of FALLOUT...

      October 15, 2010 at 00:43 | Report abuse |
    • toma

      You Canadians don't know anyone with cancer because your closest neighbor is 10 miles... I'm sorry 16 kilometers away..

      October 15, 2010 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
    • Constantine

      Interesting thought – this is something to consider

      October 16, 2010 at 23:35 | Report abuse |
  4. Fred

    The main cause of cancer is our modern habit of not dying young of other things. The rate of cancer for 45-49 year olds is about 1 in 300. For kids its about 1 in 5000 to 1 in 10,000 depending on age. You wouldn't expect to find very many cancers in the mummies they are talking about since all of them died before they were 50. The highest rates are for 80-84 year olds (about 1 in 40).

    Rosalie David is an Egyptologist, not a physician, much less an oncologist (cancer doctor). If she doesn't know that there are many natural causes of cancer (sunlight, radon, some viruses, many natural chemicals), then how credible is she?

    This is just modernity bashing, not science.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hilary Bensimon

      You don't need to be a scientist to see that cancer epidemic is everywhere! I remember 30-40 years ago that it was not as pervasive. There are thousands of chemicals being dumped into the atmosphere and soil and water, tons of them every day. A lot of them proven to cause cancer.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:30 | Report abuse |
    • Skippy

      Why dont you go Google the average lifespan from 30 to 40 years ago and compare it to what you find out about the average lifespan today. After that little research project, please report back on your "epidemic".

      October 14, 2010 at 21:08 | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      Why do you assume she does not know about various natural sources of cancer? As a matter of fact, I just read the article. I assure you, she knows. One of the authors is also a pathologist.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:22 | Report abuse |
    • Eva

      Not true. People are developing cancer at an increasingly young age, probably due to environmental toxins. For example, blood cancers such as Lymphoma and Myeloma used to develop in people over 60. Now more and more 40 year olds develop it, and the numbers for younger patients increase each year. So NO, cancer is not just an illness of the old anymore.

      October 14, 2010 at 23:26 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Fred, the cancer discovered in the one case most certainly was NOT caused by sunlight or radon. It was colorectal cancer, hence would not even be viral, there ARE a couple of species of bacteria known for the possible induction of cancer and COULD potentially induce rectal cancer, but it's again rather unlikely.
      Chemical triggers, perhaps but unlikely due to the location again.
      Radon would be either bone or GI, depending on a number of factors, such as what decay product was where in the GI tract determining if it absorbed or not.

      October 15, 2010 at 00:48 | Report abuse |
    • Nagaraj R

      Or are we analyzing too much. I have heard that there was a study which analyzed bodies of people who died of old age and found that some of them had well developed cancer but they were not aware and hence did not treat it.

      October 15, 2010 at 04:44 | Report abuse |
    • Constantine

      So true – I wonder if the study considers this and was just not mentioned

      October 16, 2010 at 23:36 | Report abuse |
  5. Patick

    Slow month for Nature Reviews Cancer?

    October 14, 2010 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Mark Stone

    How about all of the chemicals that go in our food? Seems to me that MIGHT have something to do wtih rising cancer...

    October 14, 2010 at 19:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RG

      Bingo! We ingest a massive quantity of chemicals during our lifetimes, from both food and water supplies.
      If such a small amount of chemicals (pharmaceutic drugs) can have such a profound effect on our health and emotional
      stability, what effect does the the does our chemical laced food and water supply have on us?

      October 14, 2010 at 20:08 | Report abuse |
    • Constantine

      Its possible – rather, im sure its part of it

      October 16, 2010 at 23:38 | Report abuse |
  7. Testament

    The age argument purely depends on the person studying this subject. In written history, the stuff we read about in highschool and even some basic colleges people didn't live to be more than 50 tops. Most people died around their 30s or 40s. Thats according to the stuff we learn in basic schools. But for people who have PHD's in some sort of History major will tell you thats probably the tip of the ice berg. Some will tell you they lived longer some will tell you they lived shorter. When it comes to history everything becomes relative because it boils down to that one person's perspective. Then lets not forget the people who are Relligious; there are some historians who view holy books as a part of history. And many people who actually know a thing or two about their holy books know that the key characters lived to be extremely old. So it becomes a VS campaign here with age. And considering no one can really agree on it age becomes irrelevant. Why?

    Well One: No one knows the 100% factual average age for the "back in the day" time period. Just because they say they have the "evidence" to prove it really means nothing because there is always someone else to disprove it.
    And two: Look at how many children nowadays who are being birthed with cancer...who develope cancer so so early in age. So today cancer knows no age why would it know age back then?

    I for one believe it is our way of living. The Diet drinks they have out like Diet Coke and Pepsi Mtn Dew etc, all have that fake sugar. It starts with a P and if you look on the ingredients bar it says : "contains Ph......" I can't spell it but its really long. Its pretty much the same as Splenda, Nutrasweet, etc etc. That stuff has been linked to Cancer. All the BS they put in cigarettes like the tar, the pigs blood and soooo much more causes cancer. (yet the Native Americans, Indians, Asians, and so many more all smoked and didn't have issues with cancer "back in the day.") Micro-waves weren't around back then either. They sure as h3ll didn't have fluoride in the water supply either. Theres a reason why dentists tell you not to ingest flouride, but the government regulations don't give a sh!!!t. All the polutents in the air, the water, the land; no wonder we're all dying. So many people are dying of cancer. In my place of employment 3 people died of cancer in the last month and now we have 1 more person who just recently found out they have cancer. They were all no older than 55 when they died and this last person is 42. Doesn't smoke or drink and doesn't have a "genetic history" of it either. I'm sure back then people died from the simple bug known as the flu or a common cold but according to this study, only 1 mummy was found with a possible cancer and just because many people died doesn't change the fact that many still lived and didn't develope cancer. So these people didn't die from cancer but from other things.

    However I realize that is the reality that I live, my experiences are way different than someone elses. So for someone else, no one they know has cancer. I cannot and will not speak that I know everything from those time periods because I don't, I didn't live them and I only speak from what I am seeing now to what I saw when I was a child.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • K

      When talking about diet sodas, are you referring to phenylalanine?

      if so, phenylalanine is NOT the same thing as "fake" sugar. Phenylalanine is actually an amino acid. It is law that it must be listed as an ingredient because there are people who are deficient in the enzyme required to process phenylalanine (everyone is tested for this condition called pku at birth). Without the ability to process phenylalanine, it accumulates in the body (mostly the brain) and can cause severe developmental issues.

      This warning is found on ANY food product containing phenylalanine. Just FYI

      October 14, 2010 at 20:33 | Report abuse |
    • durelin

      Ok this comment was just stupid i had to reply.... the thing "that starts with a ph" you're talking about is phenylalanine and its not a "fake sugar" its an amino acid. Its been put there because of a specific disease called PKU which means you can't break down the amino acid into usable form and it builds up in the system and causes mental retardation in the developing child (and in babies of pregnant PKUers). Once they reach a certain age and the females stop having children it is perfectly safe even for these people to start eating phenylalanine.

      Learn at least a little bit about what you're talking about before you go making comments like you're an authority on the subject ( i mean hell all you had to do on that one was look the damn word up and its right there for anyone to understand! )

      For the main topic what people are really not thinking about either is that child mortality at this time was also very high, so if a child had some kind of disease they would usually die quickly. A lot of the childhood cancers that you now hear about all the time were most likely present back then as well but were documented as something else or it affected the child's developing immune system and caused the child to get some other disorder that was more easily recognized. Also "doctors" back then really didn't know what they were doing and even in the article they point to how cancer was an imbalance of the humors which we know is not the case. I myself have a rare medical condition and should have died when i was 2 weeks old (and 40 surgeries and over 150 hospitalizations so far) but i'm still alive. Is my disorder attributable to all the pollutants that are in the environment? Nope. just good old fashioned genetic malformation. Its a rare disorder because most of us die due to miscarriage even today, so back then i would not only have died at an early age i would also have been called most likely some kind of demon because of a large birth mark and limb overgrowth and malformation. I would not have even classified as a medical problem, so some religious aberration and banished to whatever the society called hell.

      And as a last point, we don't even know what caused the death of most of these bodies we've uncovered of the ancient world (other than the obvious physical causes of death). In order to determine a definite diagnosis of most diseases a sample has to be taken and then tested which usually destroys the sample, which historians who are making these conclusions won't allow (for good reason), but then put a "definitely this disease" category on something when in reality the visual signs that they see on the remains could in fact be caused by more often than not a dozen different medical problems.

      October 15, 2010 at 01:56 | Report abuse |
    • stan turecki

      the dentist tells you not to swallow the flouride gel used in tooth cleaning because the concentration of flouride can be up to 22,500 times greater than what is found in municipal water sources. flouride is a poison. consume enough of it in a single shot and it CAN kill you. before you say 'ah-ha!' I would point out that plain old fashioned pure water is also deadly when consumed in large amounts, despite the fact that without water life would be impossible. I doubt you are going to start complaining they are poisoning us by putting water in our tap water – are you?

      October 15, 2010 at 06:40 | Report abuse |
  8. Jim

    It's true people died earlier. However, there are cancers typical for the younger adults 20-45, such as loung cancer, non-hodgkin's lymphoma, melanoma, colorectal, brain cancers. Kidney cancer's is 4% (of all cancer cases for this), while testis cancer is 14%. Bottom-line, there is room to assess whether there were fewer cancers than now.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Actually, the list of cancers you made here (Lung, NHL, melanoma, colorectal) very much increase with age and disproportionately affect the elderly – people dying younger than age 45 is uncommon compared to 70,80, 90 year olds with those types of malignancy. Testicular cancer is a young person's cancer (rare after age 40). Certain types of leukemia (and I wonder honestly whether the ancients were able to differentiate these from infection since there is no visible solid tumor), bone, certain sarcomas, Hodgekin's etc are more likely to affect kids and young adults.

      Since average life expectancy in the ancient world was 35-50 years depending on where you lived, clearly you have to base any such study on tumors of the young.

      The other part of "modern lifestyle" in fact is the nutrition (i.e. lack of starvation), medications (particularly antibiotics), sanitation, surgeries, etc. that allow people to live to 80, not die during childbirth, etc. I have no doubt my wife would not be with me had we lived 500 years ago and would have died during her first pregnancy (an emergency C. section saved both my son and wife from what would have been a dead fetus that was too large to be born). Instead she is living a happy healthy life. The reality is that if we all live long enough, almost all of will have cells that will malfunction on a DNA level and become cancers. There is no question that changes in lifestyle and environment / habits, food, etc. affect cancer rates (just look at lung cancer rates since WWII compared to 1900), but also look at the drop in colorectal and stomach cancer rates recently owing to sanitation, changes in diets, and a screening test which is quite effective at preventing colon cancer.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse |
    • Lost My Girl

      My daughter died of Rhabdomyosarcoma (muscle cancer) right after her 8th birthday. She fought for 3 years. Diagnosed at 5, she had been symptomatic for almost a year. The doctors kept telling me it was in her head. I had just had her brother when she was 4 and they thought, oh she has to share you know, she's fine. She was not fine. Not until I felt a palpable tumor, which took almost a year, was she finally diagnosed and even that took a month before they really knew what it was. I had 3 different sarcoma diagnoses in 16 hours. This in New York City with all of their teaching hospitals.
      I do not have anyone in my family who has died of cancer. Only 1 diagnosis of what I call "old lady" breast cancer. My grandma was 81 at the time. She lived until she was 93 and died in her sleep at home.
      I never did drugs, did everything right during the pregnancy it took me 5 years to achieve to term. I don't live in a cancer "hot spot" either, although that is all a matter of perspective too.
      If there's one thing I learned out of all of this, is that EVERYTHING is a matter of perspective.
      There must have been some kids who died of these sarcomas more than 60 years ago. I didn't even let my daughter have rainbow goldfish b/c of the added coloring! I did everything right and she's still gone.
      However, if she had been diagnosed 100 years ago, I certainly wouldn't have had the amazing 3 years I did have with her. She would have had 3 months tops and would have died at 5.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:14 | Report abuse |
    • LoveX100

      For "LostMyGirl," reading your story, I wish I was there to give you a hug. So sorry for the loss of your daughter. You are a wonderful mom. Your daughter and son were/are blessed to be born to you.

      October 15, 2010 at 04:01 | Report abuse |
  9. KBR

    One big change is that in ancient times people died of other things before they could die of cancer.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Constantine

      Yup – thats what i thought

      October 16, 2010 at 23:39 | Report abuse |
  10. Dr. K

    The environment can affect the tags on the DNA and cause silencing of some cancer supressor genes as a result people exposed to toxins have higher risk of cancer. There is recent evidence that some foods can help in keeping the good genes in the DNA "turned on" and the bad genes "turned off". These foods include onions, soy isoflavons(from soybeans), grapes, broccli etc. The studies on identical twins have highlighted the effect of environment and lifestyle on the cancer. There are many examples in which one sibling among twins got the cancer whereas other did not. The bottom line is that in some cases inheritance is responsible for cancer while in others= cases nutirition, environment and life style are responsible for causing cancer. In my reserch I have discovered a common link among all cancers. The results will be published shortly. Take care.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Living is the common link. Beyond this there is no single "magic bullet".

      October 14, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
  11. Fred


    Cumulative rate of cancer from birth to 50th birthday is about 1 in 100.

    Bump that to birth to 60 and the rate is about 1 in 40.

    People are more likely to get cancer between age 50 and 60 than between birth and age 50.

    If you meant "in their 60s" as the cutoff, well from birth to 70th birthday the cumulative rate is about 1 in 20.

    People are 3 times as likely to get cancer in their 60s as they are from birth to age 50.

    Factor in that each grandparent with cancer (on average) means two or three nuclear "families" on average with a relative with cancer. Throw in great uncles and aunts (lots of people two or three generations ago had lots of siblings), yeah, you would expect a lot of families to have at least one relative with cancer. Of course, those are averages. If you know a lot of people who smoke, that would increase the chances of cancer.

    If you mean 1901 when you say "turn of the century" life expectancy in 1900 in the US was under 50.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. James Fox

    This article is a pathetic analysis of the data with no appreciation for the significant age relation to getting a cancer diagnosis. We live longer lives therefore there is a greater opportunity for DNA to mutate and form cancers; so smoking, occasionally radiation, or exposure to toxins may cause cancer, however most cancers arise for no known reason or as a result of genetic predispositions, not from our modern lifestyle.

    October 14, 2010 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Constantine

      Not fully sure thats the case – although a strong possibility

      October 16, 2010 at 23:40 | Report abuse |
    • ta

      oshawa said genetics was the scapegoat of determinism and has never been proven
      you change everyday you eat br rice in 8yrs totally new physio

      December 30, 2010 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
  13. Sam

    But what would have happened if people DID live as long as we do 2,000 years ago? They probably would NOT have died of cancer. That's because cancer is a uniquely modern sickness. Cancer is the slow, silent kiss of death that we are giving ourselves through the altered foods we eat, the radiation we recieve from radio, televisions, cell phones, and computers, and the pollution we've been pumping into the atmosphere all over the globe for more than one hundred years since the spread of automobiles and mass industry. The chances of detecting cancer increase with age for obvious reasons: the older you get, the more exposure you've had, and therefore more time for the cancer to spread, until it becomes detectable. What the article doesn't state is that more and more young people are getting cancer as time passess. This would then void the argument that age is the sole identifable determinant of cancer. We're looking at a future were more cancers claim more people at a younger age and faster in lethality, and there will be never be a cure because 'cancer' is an multi-billion dollar medcial, charitable, and emotional/sympathetic industry. But we don't need a cure for 'cancer'. We need a cure for reckless, untested technology and the deep human flaws that enable it.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      "They probably would NOT have died of cancer. That's because cancer is a uniquely modern sickness."

      You have no way to know that.

      I can promise you that if we didn't have antibiotics or modern surgery or food supplies that were sustainable even in the middle of a drought / insect invasion / etc. or modern surgical tecnhiques then modern people would die much earlier from pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin abscesses, broken legs, starvation, bowel obstructions, parasites, childbirth, and on and on and on.

      I think people have a very misguided desire to blame human advancement for disease because they have some polyanaesque vision of what it was like to live 300, 500, 1000, 2000 years ago when the reason people had huge families was often because so many died as babies and children. In my immediate family alone, I am quite certain (though could never prove it) that between my wife and two sons and I, none of us would probably be alive right now (parents at age 40) if not for the ability to do a C. section (for 2 of us) and antibiotics (for the other two). Talk about scourge ... an entire family wiped out.

      Cancer is a NATURAL phenomenon. Lets not pretend there is some mysticism to it that we can stamp out entirely just by eating/breathing/living differently ... unless that differently is dying by age 20.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
    • Amphiox

      Ancient people who cooked with wood stoves or fires inside poorly ventilated homes (which in all likelihood would include the majority of the poor and middle classes in the majority of ancient cultures that were based on farming and cities) would be exposing themselves to a carcinogenic load far greater and far more sustained than anything modern humans are subject to. If they lived to the same average age as modern humans, it is almost certain that they would have HIGHER rates of many cancers.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:18 | Report abuse |
    • sandra

      BRAVO....you nailed it!

      October 14, 2010 at 21:42 | Report abuse |
    • vickeyd

      very good Sam. I like your line of thought.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:10 | Report abuse |
  14. Catholic Scourge

    The Greeks knew a lot of things that we have only rediscovered in the past 100 years, you can thank the Catholic Church for setting mankind back over 1000 years for that.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sam

      shame on you for your bigotry. nobody's eyes are blinded more than the hateful, like yourself

      October 14, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
    • Nesha

      Correction the ancient Black Egyptians knew a lot, only to be copied and emulated by the "Greeks"

      October 14, 2010 at 21:27 | Report abuse |
    • durelin

      to sam:

      while this could have been more politely stated, it is by and large a very true statement. Many ancient cultures were far more advanced than what was seen during the dark ages, and a very big cause of this was due to the religious intolerance of the catholic church at the time. from the end of the roman empire to the renaissance human development in all forms of academia basically halted or regressed, and most attempts to break through this were seen as heretical and they were put to death. The catholic church was by no means the only cause, but it does need to take its very large portion of the blame for the situation

      October 15, 2010 at 02:14 | Report abuse |
    • The Jackdaw

      Sam, the Christians literally outlawed any scientific advancement that had been achieved when they came into power. That’s what resulted in the Dark Ages. Days were not short or anything, they were simply uneducated. It wasn't until the Renaissance when the Catholic Church started to lose some of its control over the sciences that the Dark Ages ended. And yes, you can thank the Catholic Church for the regression during that period.

      October 15, 2010 at 09:31 | Report abuse |
  15. Sam

    Another pseudo-scientific article. CNN is becoming notorious for this.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Corbijn

    I had no idea they could diagnose cancer back then, I thought they just blamed stuff like that on superstition and dogma.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • He was a sinner

      Yeah and the first guy to pass out for awhile and then wake up was really resurrected........God sent him back to us......

      October 14, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
    • Amphiox

      Ancient cultures are often far more sophisticated than we often realize.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:19 | Report abuse |
  17. c

    the article states that all the stuff they tried (herbal remedies) didn't work.... How do they know it didn't work?
    Maybe it worked so well that is why they can't find anybody who died of cancer! 🙂

    My brother died of leukemia at 37. 2 weeks after diagnosis. why? chemo.
    The treatment is more dangerous than the disease.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amphiox

      They know for the same reason that they know what the Greeks tried. The Greeks wrote it down. They wrote down the symptoms, they recorded the diagnosis (as cancer), they recorded what they tried to treat it with.

      And they wrote down what the results were – ie the treatments they tried didn't work and the patients died.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse |
  18. Jimminy

    People living in the Ancient World were exposed to more hazards than we are today, and these were the major causes for a significantly shorter lifespan. Open sewers, garbage piling on the streets, feces and other human wastes poured out of windows onto the streets below, and rodents by the score were just a few of the causes of rampant illnesses in those times. Even the major cities of Europe were infested with life threatening bacterium and viral pathogens. Little wonder that wholesale cultures of the day were wiped clean from the planet taking with them all the science and technologies of the day.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dave

      hey do yourself a favor. google dr. johanna budwig cancer cure. as a christian thats my free 2 cents

      October 14, 2010 at 23:27 | Report abuse |
    • El Borracho

      Dave, you are a piece of feces. Typical "christian." Sending people to a site that requires payment. "Just give me money and you'll be saved!" Spiritual or physical now, eh?

      October 29, 2010 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
  19. Fred

    @ Jim

    With regard to "more typical" cancers. You don't have a good grasp of statistics. There are cancers that are "more typical" in younger people, but that just means that if you are one of the 1 in 3000 20-24 year-olds with cancer you are more likely to have that kind of cancer than to have some other form of cancer. It doesn't mean that young people are more likely to get those forms of cancer than older people are. The rates of those types of cancer go up with are too, it's just that the rates of other types of cancer go up with age more.

    The data they have simply is not enough to come to any meaningful conclusion. The only reason the people in the article are coming to any conclusions without enough data is that the people doing the concluding are historians, not scientists. They aren't even trying to compare relevant statistics, just matching up population to population when the populations aren't comparable.

    Pick 1000 kids at random. Only about 1 chance in 6 that even one of them has cancer. You'd need over 6,000 child mummies to expect even one cancer among them (at the modern rates). If you had 18,000 child mummies without cancer, there would still be a 5% chance that the lack of cancer was just a coincidence (assuming modern cancer rates).

    These people are irresponsible. They don't understand statistical analysis or population studies. Their conclusions are pure garbage.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. shai

    I really don't understand the point of this article. It is very clear that the article is written without much research. They are many other ancient civilizations in the world which the authors have conveniently forgotten.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Chris

    Reminds me of the idea that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman empire.
    Lead was supposedly used in water supply pipes at the time.

    But we can't really ever know conclusively what ancient people died from in general.
    Every few years new research findings are published with new theories and we are only guessing after all.
    We don't even know conclusively what causes cancer today.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Amphiox

    Nearly all the food additives associated with cancer hysteria by the uninformed were originally put into food as preservatives. They are part and parcel with the concurrent advances in sanitation and refrigeration that allow modern people to live at far greater population densities without fear of epidemic disease and starvation. Even if they did contribute to cancer (and most of them don't), it would most definitely be a case of trading cancer in older ages with infectious disease and starvation at younger ages.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Hilary Bensimon

    I don't know the statistics, but cancer seems everywhere these days. And I have a strong feeling it is because of pollution, contaminants in the water and food, pesticides, genetically engineered foods, the list goes on and on.

    We got to wake up people! I don't think that the increase of cancer during the Industrial Revolution is a coincidence. Eat organic, drink pure water, exercise regularly, there are tons of alternative treatments that can help prevent cancer.

    Don't wait until it is too late. Let's do something about protecting the environment and having a cleaner future for our children.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. 2 cents

    Why pretend naive any longer? We all know that a huge part of the health problems the world is going through now is because of the toxins we breathe, the plastics and metals we eat, and the chemicals we use. The lack of exercise, the industrialization and damaging activity on the environment is another factor.

    It's true that old age comes with many risks but many if not most of them, could be preventable if we all lived healthier lives in general. Old age doesn't HAVE to equal = disease. Unfortunately, it appears most of the "experts" seem content with just looking down on "primitive" treatments, and making fortunes off of overmedicating whatever situation that comes up.

    @Corbijn: You don't know much about human history.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hilary Bensimon

      I could not agree with you more! And don't forget that cancer treatment is a huge business for the medical industry. So why work towards preventing it? They constantly discredit and attack alternative and natural preventive treatments. I mean the US government recently sued POM! Pomegranate juice because they were advertising that it contains antioxidants and that they are good for your heart.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:34 | Report abuse |
  25. Fernando1958

    the goal should be prevent getting cancer not cure it.
    too many things coming from Corporations has carcinogens on them and the Government doesn't do enough to protect people.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hilary Bensimon


      October 14, 2010 at 20:35 | Report abuse |
    • mike hunt

      so protect yourself. stop waiting for the government to take care of you.

      October 14, 2010 at 21:31 | Report abuse |
  26. mike hunt

    the sun has been around forever, yet only in recent history has skin cancer risen to such high levels. could it be because it wasnt until recetnly we began to spread chemicals all over our skin to "prevent skin cancer" cuased by the sun?

    October 14, 2010 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Megan

      You do realized that skin cancer rates decreased significantly after sunscreens and sunblocks were introduced, right? I think it's more of an environmental issue than sunblocks causing cancer. The ozone layer is thinning due to all the chemicals we put into the atmosphere which allows more shortwave solar radiation to get through. This shortwave radiation contains UV light (both UVA and UVB), and sunblocks generally only protect against UVB. UVA causes melanomas.

      I do agree with you that many sunblocks contain questionable ingredients (I try to only use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunblocks instead of avobenzone based sunblocks). Also, while a few studies do indicate a correlation between sunblock use and increased skin cancer rates, correlation does not equal causation. Meta-analysis studies (basically, studies of studies) all say that there's not enough data. Don't jump to conclusions and do a little more research.

      I also think it's partially due to the mobility we have now compared to back in the day. My family is originally from Scotland/Wales/England so we're all on the fairer side, but we live on the East Coast now. The solar radiation coming in between 30 and 40 degrees latitude is far different than the incoming solar radiation my ancestors got between 50 and 60 degrees latitude (the angle of the sun is greater for higher latitudes, so more solar radiation is reflected off the top of the atmosphere). Do I have enough melanin in my skin to live on the East Coast and not get skin cancer? No.

      October 14, 2010 at 22:56 | Report abuse |
    • Lydia

      I think Megan has a good point about skin cancer. A few hundred years or a thousand years ago, most people lived in the environments to which they were evolved. The pale-skinned Caucasian people pretty much stuck to the cloudy, sun-starved regions where they'd settled, while the sunnier parts of the world were inhabited by people who had developed darker skin to cope with it. I would speculate that it was only when the "white man" started colonizing parts of the world that were too sunny for him that skin cancer started to become a serious problem. I can tell you, I wish I'd taken a little more after my Native American ancestors and a little less like my Irish ancestors in the melanin department. The Kansas summers would be a lot easier to deal with.

      October 15, 2010 at 11:29 | Report abuse |
  27. Rick

    Who knows – Some go to the golden arches for breakfast, lunch and dinner their entire life and smoke and drink and do drugs still live well into their 80s.

    October 14, 2010 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Noble9

    What about Noah and Methuselah? Those guys lived to like 900 years old. They would've been riddled with cancer!

    October 14, 2010 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mike hunt

      cancer is just gods way of punnishing the wicked. and yes, your 70 year old grandma who seemed like such a sweet old lady was wicked. you just didnt know it.

      October 14, 2010 at 20:51 | Report abuse |
    • Skippy

      Dont forget Rip Van Winkle.....

      October 14, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse |
    • OrangeCat

      Look up the concept of tracking age by lunar cycles.

      That produces much more reasonable ages.

      October 15, 2010 at 03:41 | Report abuse |
    • El Borracho

      You, Sir, are an ignorant moron. Noble9, get a clue, would'ja?

      October 29, 2010 at 11:50 | Report abuse |
  29. Skippy

    No...not really. You just made the same point that I was making, stupid.

    October 14, 2010 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. realworld

    Cancer is widespread today, but it doesn't appear to have been in the ancient world. Why not? – Susan Komen's grandmother?

    October 14, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. watcher

    cancer – in my opinion -is the result of how in organic chemistry in the alkane gass family -when alkane gasses alike methane and ethane mix with chlorine or flourine in the water we drink -has saturated hydrocabons that break ands reform into more complex gasses with harsher propertys that do not escape the body do to reactivity to oxygen/air/and continue to break and form longer molecualr chains – such goes with a carbon based life form in a hydrogen environment -i figure these "steeped aged agents on a micro cellular level -affectect the lyph oils that go through our bodysand our cells – through repiration – when alkane gases mix with lymph oils -the oils become solvents that rapidly oxidize whe exposed to oxygen air .-this may be what causes cells to heat warp -disfigure and become -/or develop scar tissue near cancer sites from chemical burns microscopically -possibly – either that or when this lyph oil solvent steeps in a cell long enough -it may evvect the therom dynamics -causeing things to heat up and move faster -thus turn the damaged cell into a mass producer-with power to generate enough force to destruct other normal cell particles - or if mixed with vural rdna -it could replicarte faster –but the big thing i believe is a game changer – is if this lymph oil solvent -steeps long enough arround a central dna mass in the nucleus of the cell – it adds mass and it changes the thermodynamic propertys and heats the nuclues up -and it may destroy the protien coat covering the dna – so when a lovent mixes with a dna acid – the lymph oil then becomes mor acidic and may increase a living cells – motion mass of engine particles and structures -and normal operations - alkane gasses – define the invisible killer of cancer by characteristic properties -colorless odor less causes unseen damage -heat warps – oxydises -reacts by heat with oxygen – and wpould not kill an organisim thats carbon based in life form dependant on oxygen right away . –to my this is the carcinagenic that changes a cell from the dna on out in propertys – then drives the mass production of mutanigenic living damaged cells -most hydrocarbons -saturated -are petoleum by-product most proven to cause cancer by exposure -the most smalest part -ethane is reactant – the molecular bonds past 40 – are inflamable -generates fire on contact with oxyge n and is highly toxic –so if not deformity -then petrolium poisoning in skin damage -as for tired ness – chloroform is created – with may explain fatigue if not creation or agressive mutation cancers – it may blind the bodys defences by the alkane gass -lymph oil fogg mix that crates a solvent wich my affect the bodys defences by lack of identification -because of the mask it may put in a area strickendwith cancerous cells -also it may be linked with -spontanious human combustion -mixed with a toxified body and static electrical discharge from apliances contacted in windy days in homes just by discriptions in a hydrogen lab/or/oxygen lab environment on a microscopic scale – this may just be the cancer starter that effects living organisims -cancer is genetic yes but this may be able to affect the genetics of mater by molecule distortion or sub atomic particle distortion /in quarks and goulyons -ions-protons electrons nuerons and atoms amd moleccules and systems - if cancer is a puzzle this may fill in many of the missing parts on how it effets people and cells over time by characteristic ,,-thanks -daniel –this is just my opinion im not a doctor -p.s i feel that cholesteral is damaging in arteries just like cellular -protien coats on nucleuses dna sam types of damage happens – the coating or artery – in time steeps in the plaque -patch on the arterie wall and slowly oxidises coerrodes – condensates presureises and weakes the wall system – then damages and weakens it and once in mixes and changes the theermo dynamics of how the cell works if it still lives damaged from the inside out and adds volume and motion or heat wich makes it a faster genetaor than other cells of the same kind arround it - this is my opinion of how cancer has – been arround since the dynosaurs :} and what causes – mutation and fast production and invisibility - im not a rocket csience major this theory may nt be correct – - but i am a verry proud high school drop out :} .....daniel 2010 –567 ..

    October 14, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JeramieH1

      Except alkanes are some of the _least_ reactive organic molecules known.

      October 15, 2010 at 10:13 | Report abuse |
  32. Bob

    They also didn't have all the chemicals we have in our water, air and soil..

    October 14, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. DeeJay

    I note that the longevity factor (i.e. that it's only recently that people have been living long enough to get cancer) is mentioned, however, it's quickly forgotten, in favor of mentioning other factors, such as carcinogens. However, the reason it's dismissed as a factor, is not stated. The writer probably hopes the reader will forget it and instead concentrate on these other factors. This is known as "glossing over" or "lampshading," and is misleading in spirit, if not literally (since it DOES get mentioned).

    October 14, 2010 at 21:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Help

    Hey guys, will you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 young children is fighting for his life...... Thanks

    October 14, 2010 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. wjackm

    My personal view on cancer in the 20th and 21st century is that it has definitely increased and the increase coincides(excluding cancer caused by smoking) with the automobile, the modern diet and possibly the chemicals that are in processed foods. The automobile and other passive forms of transit have significantly reduced physical movements that flushed cancer causing elements through the lymphatic system of the body. So... the bottom line for most is do not smoke, get as much exercise as you can and eat a lot of fiber and fresh foods. Good luck. This has worked for my family so far. Obviously it will not work for everyone due to other causes of cancer.

    October 14, 2010 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Annette

    Did it really ever occur to the people "studying" this that the population as a whole in ancient times didn't know about cancer or it's symptoms. Yes there may have been references in scrolls and writings here and there, but by and large the majority of the medical "professionals" of that time probably were just as ignorant of it as the population in general. Their relatives just got "wasting sicknesses" and died. No one really did autopsies or spent too much time wondering why any individual died because they were too busy trying to find ways to get food and survive themselves. Even into the beginning of the 20th century, people died and their family didn't know why. My father's Mother died in 1928 at the age of 50 My father was 16 and his family lived in the mountains of Virginia and no one has any clue why she died. They all know she got sick and then sicker and died. There is tons of speculation that it was breast cancer or some other cancer but no one knows and many people didn't see doctors so we really have no idea. My uncle on my Mother's side died in 1922 at the age of 2 and no one has the slightest clue why but there are all sorts of family speculation about cancers there also.

    The number of corpses that have been well preserved enough through history and then examined for cancer can't really be even the tiniest fraction of the population and in most cases wouldn't represent a good socio-economic or genetic sampling. For instance, it is very well known that only very wealthy Egyptians could afford good mummification and those people almost always intermarried so if the highly inbred family lines of Egypts ruling classes weren't genetically predisposed to cancers, then the study is worthless as applied to your average Egyptian whose family tree forked a bit more.

    October 14, 2010 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Ithix

    Hm, you mean that by breathing in toxic chemicals you can get cancer? Madness!

    October 14, 2010 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. lll

    hippocrates was NOT the father of Medicine...he was a student of Hotep...Hotep was from Ancient Kemet and the Father of medicine

    October 14, 2010 at 22:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lew

      And that's why we have the Hotepocratic oath....?

      October 15, 2010 at 02:11 | Report abuse |
  39. John H

    The one thing they did emphasize in this article is that God didn't give these people a remedy....im just kidding there is no God silly.:P

    October 14, 2010 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. dave

    if you trust the food system you are -stupid. there are so many chemicals in food, trisodium phosphate in cherrios and that chemical is a paint brush /garage floor cleaner, then you have battery acid in white sugar, coupled with nitrates in deli meats and other foods which some studies prove that it causes cancer. GMO foods where the very DNA is changed, huge chemical companies controlling seeds and farming. if you trust them then you should expect death

    October 14, 2010 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Michael R

    What this article proves is that we're a world of angry people. I can't believe how people can't comment on anything with out exchanging blows. Doesn't matter what it is, people just yell at each other constantly.

    October 14, 2010 at 23:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Jeff

    The chemicals in our bodies are what causes cancer. If you want to avoid cancer, or get rid of your cancer, get the chemicals out of your body, cleanse cleanse cleanse..eat organic food, drink spring water, cleanse cleanse cleanse..

    That picture above is also of a Pleadien being. They were part feline and part humanoid in form, and the Sphinx is also a depiction of one of these beings as well. They visited earth during the times of Atlantis and if Egypt and were the ones who helped build the pyramids. Of course you don;t have to believe this but you will find out eventually

    October 14, 2010 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Alejandro Londono

    And by reading to the dumbest comments i guess only older people get cancer.
    What about all the kids and teenagers in the hospitals. So we dont call that cancer or what?

    October 14, 2010 at 23:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. mmi16

    All I can say is that I am a 14 year Cancer survivor!

    October 15, 2010 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. The_Mick

    There's no question that the increased chemical exposure – whether it's paint, nail polish remover, preservatives in food, etc. – affects us strongly. My first post-college career was as an industrial research chemist. On Saturdays, I would go for a morning run and the during the long exercise I could occasionally smell or taste the chemicals with which I had been working during the week. It also came to my attention that "industrial bench chemist" was listed as having one of the shortest average lifespans of any profession. Soon, I changed careers and spent the next few decades teaching chemistry and physics to mostly gifted and talented high school classes.

    October 15, 2010 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wzrd1

      Yes, industrial bench chemists DO have a rather short life span.
      BUT, consider the discovery of saccharine. Discovered by accident after a chemist tasted his contaminated fingers.
      That's why they make gloves and have hoods to work under.
      Still, I think you made a better career choice. Teaching is VERY important!

      October 15, 2010 at 00:51 | Report abuse |
  46. matt


    October 15, 2010 at 00:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. charles s

    The longer a person lives, the greater the chance of cancer. Since so few people lived to an old enough age, cancer would not happen very often. However, it seems like cancer would still have happened, unless it was a very rare occurrence thousands of years ago. Internal cancers would mostly be hidden and not diagnosed easily. Still cancers of the skin should be identifiable or at least described in a manner that makes identification possible. I cannot imagine prostate cancer not being described in a way that would allow diagnose today. Of course BPH mimics the symptoms but it does not kill you. Many cancers seem to be caused by what you eat, this explains why different countries have different cancers.

    October 15, 2010 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. dike

    I wonder how many cancer cases are there after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Well rather than keep disputing and justifying the fact we are better off now, take this opportunity and improve your life style, quit your smoking, drink more water than your sodas, cut the fat.. whatever life or how ever long you live if you live a healthy life it is worth it.

    October 15, 2010 at 01:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Dave

    Most cancers are from exposures to radiation and pollution the big corporation put out while making $$$ that our fascist government lets them get away with...

    October 15, 2010 at 01:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Jon

    This counts as medical reporting? Science reporting?

    The number one cause of cancer death, by far, is a product made by Philip Morris. Nothing else even comes close. Nothing else is even in the same ballpark. Is there some reason "Doctor" Gupta is afraid to state that simple fact? Is there some reason he hides instead behind vague "contributes to"? It doesn't "contribute to"; it kills. Used exactly as intended. Hello? What prevents you from uttering that simple, factual, statement? Used exactly as intended, it kills half its best customers. Is there something preventing you from saying that? What are you afraid of?

    October 15, 2010 at 01:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.