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.
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.
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It's always seemed patently obvious to me that, since they lacked even basic medical knowledge about the human body, that any death by cancer was deemed a death by something else - perhaps how they tell kids "just of old age." But it's also obvious that cancer is inevitable with age, something that didn't happen too often in early history: you were lucky to outlive your infancy much less into adult years.
"The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently"
No f**king s**t. That's all this article actually had to say. The rest was BS.
Even the dinosaurs are known to have suffered from cancer. http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=598
What I would like to know is what was the main cause of death of the people of the ancient world? Perhaps evolving to become immune to that causative agent made us more susceptible to another. This certainly has been shown in rainbow trout bred from parents who are resistant to a disease called Rainbow Trout Fry Syndrome the offspring are very susceptible to a fatal disease of the kidney. Just a thought....
Main cause of death? Infection in infancy/childhood. Disease remained a major killer throughout the lifespan, but good odds of dying while young.
And it's not that we are more evolved to deal with those things in a genetic sense as much as we have evolved as a society. Some of it is genetic yes, but it's really been the improvements in dealing with disease that have changed the odds. But go to any third world country and experience the fun of disease yourself to see how much your immune system has evolved.
I suppose if you wanted to compare the relatively disease free populations of the Americas and maybe Australia/Oceania to that of the Europe-Africa-Asia you could get something, but I'm not sure if the available data is reliable enough.
depends what you eat and do for a living
Check the new and free BMI calculator: http://bmi-bmi.com
Cancer can't be prevented; we can only try our best, but it is ultimately out of our hands.
@ love....spoken like a true business man who dumps toxic sludge into the environment.............
Back then they called it , um , death................Most people lived to the ripe old age of thirty five so, I don't think they worried to much about it, instead they just called it "an act of god". Besides, there were empires to build....
Call me crazy, but I think in the future if a cause for cancer is found...it will have to do with so called "harmless" radio waves we are immersed in 24 hours a day. I'm not talking of only cell phones, I am speaking of AM, FM, and all other frequencies and types.
Crazy! Now do you feel better? Where did my tinfoil hat run off to?
Thanks IAM, I needed that!
The answer is, has, and always will be switch to a plant-based diet and stop eating animal products of any kind. But we love to eat meat, eggs,dairy and suck down our frappachappacinnnos at OurBucks too much. Lazy, fat people want a magic pill. Just stop eating animals and the cancer goes away (unless you wait till you're an adult, because you already set the cancer in motion with your eating habits as a child).
You are so dumb.
The world was raised on animal product. Humans evolved because of animal product.
your plants are poisonous too even if you buy them from a so called organic market. The only way to be sure is to grow your own.
When you interfere with LIfe and Death by saving those who are destined to die, you change the laws of evolution. Earth will continue to get sicker and sicker until every child is born with multiple diseases and we are chewing medicine like it's a serving of breakfast.
Add lifestyle of the modern world, nutrition of the modern world and you've got a planet dependent on health care. I'd say in 100-200 years, cancer will be like a cold sore.
Let's talk about today. I haven't seen anyone post the single most important contributor to many cancers is SMOKING! Children are born into families that smoke, all of us have been subjected to cigarette smoking.,we can't escape it. I'll post this rhetorical question. what do you believe will happen to cancer rates if we stopped making cigarettes?
The illnesses caused by smoking are bankrupting our health care system...we all should be more outraged than we are.
Tobacco per se is not the problem, it is all the added chemicals that the cigarette companies add to it. People that buy the loose tobacco for "roll your own" find that they smoke less, and have an easier time quitting.
Not that tobacco itself is good for you, but the added chemicals are much worse than just the tobacco.
Ok so I get them pointing out smoking or pollution as being possible causes for modern day but they are forgetting one key ingredient here. Why wont anyone grow a pair of balls in the scientific community and say that hey its probably all the hormones and genetic engineering that goes on in all of our foods. Lets be realistic here the child rate of cancer has been growing. We can say its pollution or second hand smoke as some way to cloud over the real problems here but it doesnt take a doctor to figure out if you eat poison you will die. Chances are that autism is directly related to the crap in food too. But go ahead keep feeding yourselves and your children all that genetically engineered crap and blaming the tobacco industry as being the sole cause of cancer.
Yes I'm a smoker and yes I know it can kill me its smoke inhalation im not brainwashed into believeing its good for me like the TRUTH campaign would like you to believe, yet after 15 years My lungs are fine im in great health. I believe it to be all thanks to eating healthy and not eating all that genetically engineered food they sell at the grocery store. My advice have a garden, hunt your own meat if you want it, but limit the ammount of food that you have to buy as that stuff is poison. If you don't believe me google the ingredients they put in food. These chemicals are poison hell we use the same stuff in pest control poisons so any dose that you have is not safe. as an example there is a chemical in the vitamin waters that your body cannot process out of your system. Over time it builds up and will give you severe nervous system damage. So tell me how is that vitamin water your drinking good or even healthy for you?
Wake up don't believe the corporate owned medical system and their lies.
Be careful about the proposition that people didn't live as long then. What matters is not life expectancy at birth, but survivorship after the early childhood diseases and maladies winnow out the population, say age 5 or 10. Such demographic studies as there are suggest that once past that, expectancy was much the same in the 19th century, for example, as in the 20th until the development of penicillin and other modern antibiotics. Even in the middle ages, where we have records, there was a pretty decent chance of one who reached adulthood also reaching 60 or beyond, well into cancer age. Further, we would want to know the incidence of young adult cancer now (say, ages 20-40) compared to the middle ages or classical period. Having recently spent a lot of time at a cancer institute, I am taken aback by the large number of young adult patients.
The average american is walking around today with as much as 600 different chemical compounds in their system that did not exist 100 years ago. A great deal of these are cumulative in both their nature and effect. Consuming them now may do little to nothing. Twenty years down the road, however, enough may have accumulated to cause just enough damage and perhaps cancer. Coal burning, another fairly modern practice, releases trace amounts of radioactive elements (thorium, potassium40, uranium, etc) so this too can contribute to some degree. Both the modern diet and environment has been thoroughly poisoned beyond comparison to ancient times – but at the same time, we've gotten better at prolonging life in spite of disease. To simply be given to accepting cancer as a byproduct of greater life expectancy strikes me as profoundly f*cking silly.
Chemicals, GMO foods, radiation, emf's....of course they didn't get cancer.
In olden times, people didn't die simply by old age, even when relatively young by our standards today. Therefore, using the cancer rate for children isn't very good science. I mean, in ancient times, children died a lot more often than today, possibly statistically masking any underlying bone cancer.
I don't believe in Science or Reading.
It seems people are confusing the average age with life expectancy. Even though the average life expectancy was very low in the ancient world, this doesn't mean people weren't living long enough to get cancer: The average was skewed by the high infant/child mortality of the old world. During the 1000's in Europe for example, most families had AT LEAST one child who died of illness or accident. There are plenty of examples of elderly people in the ancient world and they are not noted as exceptional by historical records ("And so-and-so lived to the amazing age of 69"...etc there are also examples of centenarians in history). So, the argument that cancer is a modern invention is not weakened by the life expectancy back then; it is only strengthened. Cancer was a rare illness DESPITE all those old people. Remember, its not that there were no old people or grandparents in ancient times, its that there were less young people than now.
Back in those days, they just assumed the person was sick or possessed. When I was in Iraq, we had this medic that called everything a "bug". He didn't bother getting specific.
when that cancer grows legs and wings, you will call it a bug too!
lots of good replies, some just plain stupid, also, take into consideration genetics, some people are predisposed to the cancer gene.
Hey guys, will you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 young children is fighting for his life..... thanks
Lets keep putting hormones and preservatives in our food, I'm sure that has NOTHING to do with cancer.
Glad there's no mention of exreme critisizing causing cancer or you'd all be in trouble! What an attack mode group! -wow.
One important aspect that this article is not considering is that the prevalence of cancer in antiquity is underreported due to the sheer fact that many cancers that affect humans occur in the soft tissue which very often does not survive the process of decomposition and interrment. Bone cancers (osteosarcoma, etc) were indeed present in antiquity. Studying skeletal remains and inferring health from them to make broad generalizations regarding the health of populations is tricky as many ailments (not only cancer but infectious disesases as well) do not leave behind evidence on bones. One can not really say that cancer didn't exist in ancient populations simply because there is no evidence – the lack of evidence is due to the fact that many cancers leave no traces to be studied in skeletal remains.
A. They did not live long enough
B. They did not diagnoze well enough (No X Rays, CAT Scans whatsoever)
C. They mostly did not go obese, no shortage on exersise.
Yes, when the average person died in their 30s, most did not live to get cancer.
I feel like so many people have forgotten that most (not all) cancers are age-related. The average lifespan has gotten longer and longer, thus cancer rates are higher now than they used to be. The longer you live, you are more likely to get cancer. When the average lifespan of humans in Mesopotamia was in the 30s, of course there will be less cancer than now.
Actually, in most of my conversations with people, we have all wondered IF cancer existed hundreds and thousands of years ago. And if it did, what was the treatment. I'm glad to see someone with access to the mummies TRIED to do the research. Cancer seems to have a different target for all of us. The only things we share are blood and dna. : ) Seems pretty simple doesnt it? Blood and DNA.
And NO, there will NEVER be a cure for CANCER until we all decide it is a NON-PROFIT Business. Cancer is big business. HUGE. Imagine how many folks would be out of work if cancer were cured irradicated.
I am amazed at the number of people that go to church regularly yet find it hard to believe that God does not pay them back with illnesses such as cancer to level his playing field with their raucous behavior. With the world of today...people jellying up with numerous dumb tatooes their otherwise Godmade bodies, doing drugs to fuk up their minds, very proliferate mendacity (lies) in every field of business and otherwise, increased to the hilt violence, and the multitudes of other wild behavior...why do people all over the world think that God should not give them more cancer? I have heard it said that God is not a vindictive God...but that to me is BS!!! It looks as though all the religious idiots out there would concur!!!
I have to point out that what increases one's chance for cancer is the number of times cells reproduce. Every time one does, there is a chance for a mutation or mistake. The mutated cell then quickly multiplies itself. That is what cancer is. So anything that increases the number of times your body's cells reproduce increases the chance for cancer.
What's my point? It's two-fold. One is that the longer someone lives, the more likely they are to develop cancer as the more cell reproductions occur (and the more likely one of them is to go wrong). So yes, the more people living to an advanced age, the more cancer you will see. (I'm fairly certain that there are more women surviving childbirth now than there were more than 200 years ago.)
The did want to agree that certain cancers are essentially modern affairs, but for cultural reasons rather than environmental. Ovarian cancer, for example has taken off as a disease of the 20th and 21st centuries. Before that, women married younger, became pregnant, gave birth, and nursed their child for an extended period of time. While pregnant and nursing, a woman's body generally (not always, but usually) held off on releasing eggs from the ovaries monthly (and having to heal the ruptured area from which the egg came). Usually then a woman would only have a few more ovulations in between another child. Today, however, women begin ovulating much earlier and pretty routinely do it monthly for over 30 years, barring a year here and there where they have another child. And each of those ovulations is a chance for the cell reproduction to heal the ovaries to go wrong and create cancer. So research has indicated that there may be a difference of something like 100 menses in pre-industrial societies with late menarche, many pregnancies, and long menstrual-free stretches from intensive breast-feeding. However, in our lower fertility Western cultures, women average somewhere between 350 and 400. That's a hell of a lot more times for things to go wrong when cells split and mend. (This is why certain types of birth control are recommended for women with a family history of ovarian cancer. By decreasing the number of times an egg is released, you are decreasing that woman's chances of developing ovarian cancer.) This was my awkward attempt at an explanation of something medical–Sorry if I confused people.
I'll also point out that the younger a woman has her first child, the less likely she is to develop breast cancer. Having more than one child decreases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer during her lifetime–particularly having more than one child at a younger age. Also, after pregnancy, breastfeeding for a long period of time (for example, a year or longer) further reduces breast cancer risk by a small amount. Since those were all much more common pre-1900, I again would not be surprised if cultural changes played a role in increased breast cancer.
I'm sure there are a lot more examples like this. It doesn't necessarily mean that they were living life right back in ancient times, just differently.
There was no cancer in the ancient world because all there was to eat was meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. There was no starch, no processed sugary snacks, and the masses of people weren't deathly addicted to simple carbohydrates.
You'd think that with all the money spent that by now we would be closer to a cure than we are.
There was less cancer before, and the main reason is natural selection. People with cancer simple died and couldn't produce more children, or couldn't care for existing children which would often starve to death as a result. Since genetics predispose people to cancer, this predisposition was simply bred out when it occurred.
In modern society, people with cancer can still have children, or at least care for existing children, due to better medicine and financial help for sick people (insurance, welfare, disability, etc). And even if they die, their children are unlikely to starve – they grow up and produce their own children. This means that genetic errors that can lead to cancer are accumulating in our gene pool instead of being discarded like they are in primitive societies. Expect more and more cancer as we keep fighting natural selection. Hopefully we can counterbalance this trend by finding ways to cure cancer – it seems we're very close to that goal already.
Sooo.... all I need to do to avoid cancer is die before I get old. Sweet.
I LOVE all the wanna-be scientists that post on these things. They didn't say its a fact, its a theory. "Oh well you only get so much radiation in your life, ect..." Give me a break people. The internet has made us think that we know everything, yet we forget that the true path to wisdom is the simple statement "I do not know". How do some of you live knowing that your cup is overflowing constantly?
Theory is a FACT...the Hypothesis is the steps you take to prove something is in fact a FACT...which is a THEORY. Learned that in SCIENCE class. Sorry...But yes...my cup floweth over today! I will enlighten you and make you feel special...since that is what these posts are supposed to do..."in Theory"...hehe
Denetic degradion is the most probable cause, people did live long lives several thousand years ago.
How Denetic degradion happen? I am kind of agreeing with you and curious about gene detoriation. Thanks.
The article's author is misleading in saying that "modern lifestyles" have caused us to have more cancer than the people of ancient times. In ancient times, average life expectancy, as near as can be determined, was about 25 – 30 years for most men, less for women because of the dangers of childbearing. Most people were slaves, serfs, bound to the land and to the nobility who owned them and the land. Their diets were poor, living conditions were unhealthy, and their work day lasted from "can" until "can't". The kings, etc of course lived much longer, for instance in Egypt, the Pharohs probably averaged 60 years each. No wonder the common people believed that Pharoh was a god! In our times, average life expectancy is much much longer, around 70 years as a minimum in developed nations and more for women than for men. So? So we live long enough to die from cancer because the other things which used to kill us off at 30 no longer do so. Lifestyle? No, healthy food, clean living conditions, vaccination from innumerable diseases and medical care beyond the dreams of Roman Emperors are all available to everyone in the developed nations and will soon be available to all in the "developing" nations.
There are a lot of man made poisons we use everyday that we can medicine and prescription pills. Ever hear of diethylstilbestrol (aka DES)? Google it and see all the milti-generational damage this once called "wonder drug" did and continues to do to those exposed to it. It can cause a rare type of cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. Many prescription drugs have been linked to cancer.
Along with people living longer the article also suggests that pollution might have something as a cancer vector. We also exploded atomic bombs in our own atmosphere which can't be doing any of us any good. Additionally we have much better methods of detection and diagnosis which can also show up as an increase in cancer cases.
The only polution-free ancient people were Adam and Eve. The rest warmed themselves with fires, cooked food over fires, smelted metal with fire, practically lived all their lives around fires. Trust me, they suffered A LOT more pollution than we do.
Atomic weapons only affect limited areas, and they're not much worse than cosmic rays and solar radiation which have been striking people for, like, ever. In fact ancient people spent a lot more time outside than we do, so if radiation was such a big factor, they should have much more cancer than we.
Cancer is caused by radiation, or carcinogens, or simple mistakes in DNA replication. But the body has evolved mechanism of correcting or destroying these mistakes. You will never be able to stop cancer from appearing in your body – even oxygen causes DNA damage that can lead to cancer. The key is in the immune system detecting and destroying the cells that went wrong. Ancient people had better immune systems, partly due to the unsanitary conditions they lived in – which help keep the immune system on the edge, always ready to strike, while our sanitary living puts it to sleep – but mostly due to natural selection. People with weak immune systems simply died of other diseases before they developed cancer and didn't pass their genes to the next generation. Nowadays, they get immunized against viruses, antibiotics are used to kill bacterial infections... natural selection doesn't get a chance to remove these people, and they live to pass on their weak immune systems to their children. It would be surprising if we DIDN'T see an increase in cancer and other diseases.
Remember people there a lot of old people before the modern era as well! The average person didn't die at 45, they died at 5-10. In London for example, The percentage of the children born in London who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5% (wikipedia) in 1730-1749, 74.5 percent!!! That means roughly only 25% of children made it to their 6th birthday which is going to severely skew average life expectancy. Otherwise you could live pretty long.
So...what is really being said....is....People need to go back to dieing young...and CANCER would be erradicated!?!?!?!?!? I found the cure!!!!! WOO HOO!!!
It also means...that we should quit eating processed foods...that makes us live forever I read in an earlier article today by CNN!!! Wow...I think I will play the lottery tonight, so I can win! 😉
To those who say people did not live long in ancient times this is a fallacy. People who survived childhood and did not have accidents lived fairly long. Because of this finding cancer and writing of cancer would be expected. The age adjusted rates are higher today due to all of the causes mentioned: pollution, poor diet, genetics. Also, not mentioned, lack of exercise and obesity. Lawrence, above, makes a good point – life expectancy was low back then to to birthing and childhood issues. Once you got by these things and you didn't have an accident or you were not killed in war or eaten by a lion, you lived pretty long.
Well, at least they cleared up that whole Zodiac thing. I always wondered about that.
The most obvious reason why they didn't get cancer was because the population of the world was only a tiny fraction of what we have today. It takes thousands of years and billions of people for a new disease to evolve.
@ 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."
You really need to take some statistics. The fact that several of the upperclass greeks did live full lives does not mean that tis is normal throughout human history. The level of hygeine and sanitation during the height of the greek/roman era especially among upper classes cannot be used as an example for the all of human history,
You are an idiot
I suspect we'll look back on chemotherapy one day and think of it as gruesome treatment.
Probably a lot of it has to do with vitamin D, which is now known to help prevent cancer. People in the ancient world were more exposed to sunlight and hence synthesized plenty of vitamin D. With the industrial revolution, people started going indoors and staying there. Our vitamin D levels are probably a fraction of what people would have had back then.
As others have pointed out, too, people did live quite long in the ancient world. Looking at average life spans gives you a skewed perspective due to the large numbers of children dying. I don't know the numbers from then, but right now the average life span in the US is around 78, but for people who make it to age 50 the average is much higher. Put another way, people who survived childhood were more likely to live to be 60 or older, which brings the increased risk of cancer.
I suspect we'll look back on chemotherapy one day and think of it as gruesome treatment.
Having been through it, I can attest it is pretty gruesome.
I suspect we'll look back on chemotherapy one day and think of it as gruesome treatment.
Having been through it, I can attest it is pretty gruesome.
And the really cool part is that you did not have to wait 10K years to know that!!! Boy is mankind smart or what!?!?!?
I think we need 2 fear God & obey God,den He can take away d evil scourge away frm us
Right. That's why priests and nuns don't get cancer, and practically every atheist is walking around with a lump sticking out somewhere. God got tired of striking down sinners with lightning bolts.
hahahahaha! Thanks for my morning entertainment!!! Really Skippy? If the name made me giggle!
Everyone has a magic bullet, secret recipe, holy elixir to get rid of cancer. So far, not one has worked. Radiation and Chemotherapy seem to extend the life of the victim, but many times the cancer returns and is more vigorous than before the treatment. I've battled cancer and currently have it knocked down. Hopefully it will stay down, but cancer is either the plague of the 20th & 21st centuries or a common disease that has existed forever and is now more documented. Some day we may find that it is caused by a virus and there is a simple vaccination to eradicate this from the planet. Until then we will continue allowing the medical doctors to poison us with chemotherapy, burn us with radiation, cut us with surgery and do anything else they please so we can extend our lives one more day.