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. vape shop near me


    May 5, 2021 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. golden corral near me

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conducting a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this topic here on your internet site.


    May 5, 2021 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RV Awning Orange County


    May 5, 2021 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. coronavirus testing near me


    May 5, 2021 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. tow truck repair

    Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to produce a great article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and never manage to get nearly anything done.


    May 5, 2021 at 22:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Corneal Refractive Therapy


    May 6, 2021 at 01:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. business training near me


    May 6, 2021 at 04:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sclera Contacts

    That is a really good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Short but very precise information… Thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!


    May 6, 2021 at 07:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. RV Restoration Orange County


    May 6, 2021 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. cargo van installation

    Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I'll forward this information to him. Pretty sure he's going to have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!


    May 6, 2021 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. bookstore near me


    May 6, 2021 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. longhorn near me


    May 6, 2021 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. modvans

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Thanks for supplying these details.


    May 6, 2021 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. locksmith near me

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am going through troubles with your RSS. I don’t understand the reason why I cannot join it. Is there anybody else getting identical RSS issues? Anyone that knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    May 6, 2021 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. https://thuocladientu123.com

    Best view i have ever seen !


    May 6, 2021 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. kfc near me

    Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to create a great article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never manage to get anything done.


    May 6, 2021 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. tanning near me


    May 6, 2021 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. toy hauler furniture

    Your style is so unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this site.


    May 6, 2021 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. national interstate rv insurance reviews


    May 6, 2021 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. pet stores near me

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and the rest of the site is really good.


    May 6, 2021 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Forklift For Sale Near Me

    The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won't fail me as much as this particular one. After all, I know it was my choice to read, however I genuinely believed you would have something helpful to say. All I hear is a bunch of crying about something that you can fix if you weren't too busy seeking attention.


    May 6, 2021 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Craft Brewers Company

    This is the perfect blog for anyone who hopes to understand this topic. You know so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I personally would want to…HaHa). You certainly put a new spin on a topic that's been discussed for many years. Excellent stuff, just great!


    May 6, 2021 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Forklift Repair Los Angeles

    There's definately a lot to find out about this topic. I love all of the points you made.


    May 6, 2021 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Brewery Companies


    May 6, 2021 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. rv supplies orange county


    May 6, 2021 at 17:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Forklift For Sale


    May 6, 2021 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Brewing Classes

    Good article. I am going through a few of these issues as well..


    May 6, 2021 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Forklift Repair Shop

    Your style is unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this blog.


    May 7, 2021 at 03:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. social security office near me

    Having read this I thought it was really informative. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this short article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    May 7, 2021 at 04:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. handyman near me


    May 7, 2021 at 04:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. smiths near me

    You're so awesome! I don't suppose I have read through a single thing like that before. So great to discover somebody with a few unique thoughts on this topic. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!


    May 7, 2021 at 04:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. dapoxetine

    dapoxetine pills for sale dapoxetine 100 mg

    May 7, 2021 at 06:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. trucker jobs near me


    May 7, 2021 at 06:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. watch repair fullerton


    May 7, 2021 at 06:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Forklift Extensions Orange County

    This website certainly has all the information I needed about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.


    May 7, 2021 at 07:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. stair repair near me


    May 7, 2021 at 07:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Forklift Rental Near Me


    May 7, 2021 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Forklifts

    Excellent post. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..


    May 7, 2021 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. White Wine Companies

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Many thanks for providing this information.


    May 7, 2021 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Beer Seminars

    Can I simply say what a comfort to discover someone who actually understands what they're discussing on the net. You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people have to read this and understand this side of your story. It's surprising you aren't more popular because you certainly have the gift.


    May 7, 2021 at 08:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Forklift Extensions Los Angeles


    May 7, 2021 at 08:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Specialty Wine Stores

    Saved as a favorite, I really like your site!


    May 7, 2021 at 09:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Used Forklift For Sale California


    May 7, 2021 at 09:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. best breakfast near me


    May 7, 2021 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. xfinity store near me


    May 7, 2021 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. priligy

    priligy usa buy priligy

    May 7, 2021 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. rv remodel supplies


    May 7, 2021 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. horse trailer service


    May 7, 2021 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. repair rv slide out


    May 7, 2021 at 20:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Digital Marketing Program


    May 7, 2021 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53

Leave a Reply to Start Error Mercedes Sprinter Repair


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

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.