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. cialis without a doctor prescription

    tadalafil dosage cialis side effects for tadalafil

    June 5, 2021 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. 2000 Chevy Conversion Van Body Repair Panels

    I was excited to find this site. I want to to thank you for ones time for this particularly wonderful read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it and I have you saved as a favorite to check out new information on your web site.


    June 5, 2021 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mercedes Benz Sprinter Rv Service Locations

    There's definately a lot to know about this subject. I really like all the points you made.


    June 5, 2021 at 19:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Nearest Mercedes Service Center


    June 5, 2021 at 19:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mercedes Sprinter Cowl Panel Rust Repair


    June 5, 2021 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. shoprite near me

    After looking over a handful of the articles on your site, I honestly appreciate your technique of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back soon. Take a look at my website as well and tell me your opinion.


    June 5, 2021 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. sandwiches near me

    This website was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me. Cheers!


    June 5, 2021 at 22:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. tadalafil powder suppliers

    what is tadalafil tadalafil troche cost canada generic tadalafil

    June 5, 2021 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Sprinter Van Repair In Huntington Beach

    Everything is very open with a clear clarification of the challenges. It was truly informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Many thanks for sharing!


    June 6, 2021 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. orange county tv repair

    This website was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something which helped me. Kudos!


    June 6, 2021 at 01:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sprinter Heater Valve Repair

    You should take part in a contest for one of the most useful websites on the web. I'm going to highly recommend this web site!


    June 6, 2021 at 01:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. 2006 Sprinter Transmission Repair


    June 6, 2021 at 03:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablet

    chloroquine malaria what is hydroxychloroquine chloroquine phosphate side effects

    June 6, 2021 at 03:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. tadalafil cost walmart

    what is tadalafil 20 mg canada generic tadalafil tadalafil dapoxetine

    June 6, 2021 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. gas near me


    June 6, 2021 at 04:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. canada generic tadalafil

    tadalafil mechanism tadalafil pah vardenafil vs tadalafil

    June 6, 2021 at 07:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Dodge Sprinter Van Repair


    June 6, 2021 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. beeg me


    June 6, 2021 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Southern California Sprinter Repair


    June 6, 2021 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. rv awning replacement near me

    After checking out a handful of the articles on your site, I seriously like your technique of blogging. I saved as a favorite it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future. Please visit my website too and let me know your opinion.


    June 6, 2021 at 23:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. RV Fiberglass Repair Near Me

    I love looking through a post that can make men and women think. Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


    June 7, 2021 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Sprinter Van Repair Abs

    Itís difficult to find well-informed people for this topic, however, you sound like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 7, 2021 at 01:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. buy chloroquine uk

    can hydroxychloroquine chloroquine australia hydroxychloroq

    June 7, 2021 at 01:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. governmentauctions.org review

    I couldn?t refrain from commenting. Perfectly

    my webpage :: governmentauctions.org review

    June 7, 2021 at 03:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. hydroxychloroquine zinc

    choloquine hydroxychloroquine side effects natural chloroquine

    June 7, 2021 at 03:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. fiberglass near me

    I enjoy reading through a post that can make people think. Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


    June 7, 2021 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Mercedes Winnebago Sprinter Repair

    This is a topic that is near to my heart... Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?


    June 7, 2021 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. 2006 Sprinter Fuel Pump Repair

    Aw, this was a really good post. Taking the time and actual effort to create a really good articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I put things off a whole lot and don't manage to get nearly anything done.


    June 7, 2021 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. covid testing sites near me


    June 7, 2021 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. barnes and noble near me


    June 7, 2021 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. rv body shop

    Everything is very open with a clear description of the challenges. It was really informative. Your site is very useful. Many thanks for sharing!


    June 7, 2021 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. repair rv shades

    Aw, this was a really nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to create a really good articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I put things off a whole lot and never manage to get nearly anything done.


    June 7, 2021 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. couch upholstery repair near me

    You should take part in a contest for one of the finest websites on the net. I will recommend this web site!


    June 7, 2021 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Center Orange County

    Aw, this was a really nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a top notch articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I hesitate a lot and don't seem to get nearly anything done.


    June 7, 2021 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. RV Air Conditioner Repair Near Me

    This is a topic that's near to my heart... Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?


    June 7, 2021 at 22:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. rv slide out repair parts


    June 7, 2021 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. RV Beds Near Me

    Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this site needs much more attention. Iíll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!


    June 7, 2021 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Mercedes Benz Sprinter Service Locations


    June 7, 2021 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. trailer painting near me


    June 8, 2021 at 00:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. semi truck shops near me

    Good post. I will be going through some of these issues as well..


    June 8, 2021 at 00:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. chloroquine new zealand

    hcq malaria generic chloroquine phosphate who makes hydroxychloroquine win

    June 8, 2021 at 04:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. chloroquine phosphate aralen

    hydroxychloroquine what is it chloroquine cancer hydroxochloriquine

    June 8, 2021 at 06:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. rv remodeling companies near me


    June 8, 2021 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. solar panels orange county ca

    Hi, I do believe this is a great website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will revisit yet again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    June 8, 2021 at 11:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Van Meter Auto Repair

    May I simply say what a comfort to find a person that really knows what they're discussing on the web. You definitely understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people should look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you aren't more popular since you definitely have the gift.


    June 8, 2021 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Mattresses Riverside


    June 8, 2021 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. travel trailer floor repair videos

    Iím amazed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog thatís both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that too few people are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy that I found this during my search for something concerning this.


    June 8, 2021 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Technician California

    You've made some decent points there. I checked on the web for more info about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.


    June 8, 2021 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. rv fiberglass repair


    June 8, 2021 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. american leak detection orange county

    This is the perfect blog for anyone who hopes to understand this topic. You know a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually will need toÖHaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a topic that has been written about for many years. Excellent stuff, just great!


    June 8, 2021 at 19:25 | 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 Lionel Gerth


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.