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. Granite countertops Beaumont

    Well that's from the dark ages how about we speed things up with science and technology. There's got to be a cute out there !

    February 10, 2015 at 00:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Countertop refinishing Beaumont tx

      I meant cure *

      February 10, 2015 at 00:31 | Report abuse |
    • Leo L.

      The 'cure' is not 'out there'... it's 'in here'. Our diet alone could eliminate 80% of all cancer. Check out Nutritionfacts.org for the research that we almost never hear about.

      April 17, 2016 at 10:38 | Report abuse |
    • lyfboat1

      You are absolutely right.

      October 10, 2017 at 02:01 | Report abuse |
  2. Travis Berzas

    For one thing it is not true that people only recently began living longer, and even if that were the case, childhood cancer makes age a moot point here.

    February 11, 2016 at 05:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mobick

      Kink Henry the VIII's first wife died of cancer. Just want every one to know that I know that. No, on to an article that actually is worth reading.

      April 17, 2016 at 11:33 | Report abuse |
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    April 7, 2016 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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  5. steven

    I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of Chlorine in drinking water. I think this could also be a large factor in so many people having Cancer in modern times. Just a thought.

    April 17, 2016 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Verbena

      That too, but I believe what needs to be changed is all the EMF around us. With wireless in our schools, in the homes, cell phones, and smart meters, we are surrounded by radiation, that we were once told to stay away from, and now we are bathing in it. Also, this is not the same radiation that comes from a regular radio or toaster, like some people believe. Cancer has been on the rise in the last ten years, and think of what else has? All these electronics that work through EMF. Also, notice how many disguised cell towers are popping up? Did you know that in most European countries cell towers have to be a certain distance from homes, schools, and offices? But in America money comes first.

      April 17, 2016 at 09:20 | Report abuse |
  6. Dan

    Prior to about 1800 the average life span was at most HALF of what it is today. While there were people who lived to old age they were the EXCEPTION. With the exception of certain types of cancer prevalent in children cancer is a disease of older people. When more than half of society died before the age of 40 the incidence of cancer would be minimal. This really isn't all that hard to explain.

    April 17, 2016 at 08:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Verbena

      Do you know how many children die of cancer each day? And did you know that it has been on the rise in the last ten years? Cancer comes from oxidation, which comes from pesticides, chemicals, etc. They are even looking into the wireless around us be responsible for the rise in ALS in the last ten years. Pesticides have been around for a long time, and although they do have harmful effects, why the increase in cancer, especially children's cancers in the last ten years? What has changed? Maybe it IS all the EMF around us. We have always been told that radiation is bad, and most people wouldn't buy a home near power lines, which give off less radiation than what's around us today.

      April 17, 2016 at 09:15 | Report abuse |
    • kathy

      Dan, the average life span was lower due to childhood death from diphtheria,smallpox,measles,etc. If a person made it through the first 10 years, they had a good chance of making to 60 or more.Not as many people made it to 80,like today, but 60 or more definitely put them into the normal age range for cancers today. If anything, the "normal" age range seems to be decreasing, as there seems to be more incidences of "age-related" types of cancer occurring in younger people. I couldn't say as to the absolute reason for less cancer in the ancient world, but it is interesting to consider that there was no "screenings" for cancer then. How many people find out they have cancer due to symptoms versus a screening test? How many people die from cancer,in spite of "catching it early" through screenings,versus those people that die from cancers that are found through symptoms? How many cancers are recognized due to screenings, and treated, that never would have developed into a fatal condition? How many people die from cancers that proliferate due to chemo and radiation's destruction of their immune systems, the very immune system that may have kept that cancer in check? How many die from the treatment of cancer,rather than the cancer itself? Do we really have MORE cancer, for any reason (age,pollution,lifestyle,etc.), or do we FIND more cancer?

      April 17, 2016 at 10:10 | Report abuse |
    • AtillaDHunn

      100,000 year old Neanderthal bones show signs of serious Bone Cancer.. Most cancers attack soft tissues and leave no signs on the bones.

      April 17, 2016 at 16:13 | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff

    Darwinism.... Healthy people were more likely to reproduce. People born with birth defects were killed as babies or didn't survive to adulthood. Only the best genes survived. They were less likely to have cancer. This isn't rocket science. All the things the article said are true but I don't know overall if people were really healthier.

    April 17, 2016 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. ReasonablyTired

    There's probably numerous factors that led to the evolution of cancer in the Human population.

    I for one think that stress and a decrease in the quality of food has caused peculiar weaknesses that are then exploited by rogue cells.

    But the whole genetic thing is strong. A friend of mine, a yogi, a vegan, developed breast cancer in her 40s. My theory cannot explain that.

    April 17, 2016 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jeremy

    Vaccines, food additives, pollution, chemicals etc etc. Our own government poisoning us. Yeah we are really advanced.

    April 17, 2016 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • john

      Luckily for you, paranoia isn't a red flag

      April 17, 2016 at 11:05 | Report abuse |
  10. inmidwife

    Cancer deaths are down 0.7 per year for the last ten years in the US.

    April 17, 2016 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Verbena

      I don't know where you are getting your figures. Look up the latest research from the World Health Organization. Cancer, especially in children is up. Especially Glioma type of cancer which they believe is related to radiation.

      April 17, 2016 at 11:18 | Report abuse |
    • Lynie

      I'm sorry to disagree with you, but I think the cancer rate is going up! My sister has stage 4 Lung Cancer, daughters sister-in-law has a cancer rash on breast, stage 3 that spreads fast, Mother and Mother -in-law that had breast cancer. I think cancer rates are higher than we know.

      April 17, 2016 at 11:40 | Report abuse |
  11. Robert Stuart

    I used to hike quite a bit in and around 1000 y/o abandoned Indian sites and if you think there is pollution today you should go inside one of cliff dwelling sites and see the still quite visible black remaining on the ceilings from open fires for cooking and heat - my guess is that the old timers inhaled quite a bit more pollutants in 45 years (avg lifespan) than we could in 100 years of driving behind a bus etc.

    April 17, 2016 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pike747

      I know I have inhaled a lot of campfire smoke. It always follows you and when it is really cold out I'd almost rather choke than freeze. If you do move away from the fire and it still follows you? I would definitely choose warmth.

      April 17, 2016 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
  12. Floyd Farmer

    Average lifespan was about 40 years. That explains low cancer rates in ancient times.

    April 17, 2016 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Behind the Scenes

    As to why the majority of people didn't live long lives in the past, well it's because they worked themselves to death in dangerous ways trying to eke out a living.

    But probably one of the reasons they didn't have the same cancer rates as we do now is because they also had to do without food at times. When the German Wehrmacht occupied the Netherlands in WWII, they confiscated most of the food to feed their troops. The population had to make do with less, and as a consequence saw an increase in longevity the rest of their lives.

    Periodic fasting will be the death of cancer as doing that starves any cancer cells requiring glucose to survive and grow, while the body can convert to existing on fat stores (ketones) after a few days of fasting. Not only that but the body will also clean up the unproductive white blood cells and once refeeding starts, replace them from hematopoietic (blood) stem cells to make a stronger immune system.

    Do a search for Valter Luongo. He is probably the utmost authority on the benefits of fasting, at the cellular level.

    April 17, 2016 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Behind the Scenes

    Just to follow up on my previous post, I don't have cancer as far as I know, but I try to maintain my ketogenic state by utilizing coconut oil and especially one of its main components, MCT (medium chain triglycerides) oil. I also favor avocados and avocado oil, plus Walnuts and Walnut Oil.

    I tend toward protein rather than carbohydrates, but utilize carbohydrates as a resistant starch by cooking potatoes or rice and then allowing them to chill in the fridge to convert to resistant starch status.

    April 17, 2016 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Red Don

    Pollution a cause for cancer?! Pish-tosh! If that were the case, our benevolent politicians would have imposed regulations on the offending industries long ago! Personally, I blame "evil spirits". We all just need to pray more!

    April 17, 2016 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. joeyglloyd

    "Cancer is also highly genetic." - Flat wrong.
    Only about 1% of disease is genetic. Our diet is the prime driver of our health.
    The "Western" diet is horrible.

    April 17, 2016 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      Your ignorance is astounding. neither smoking nor environmental pollutants (the causes of 80% of all cancers) are 'diet'.

      April 17, 2016 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
    • Tman

      Cancer may-be developing through any given weaker genetics within DNA through the lifestyle that the host feeds it. Not necessarily "inherited" but more brought on through ingestion and physical activity of the host's habits.

      I disagree with Bob, "diet" is what one consumes. Consumption is anything taken in, whether it be through stomach, lungs or intravenously or any other method you can think of. If it enters the body with knowing purpose than it is in fact a "diet".

      April 17, 2016 at 22:07 | Report abuse |
  17. John

    It hasn't been that long that cures of any kind were known for cancer. To think that the ancients knew of cures is highly unlikely. Every generation has their cures for illnesses-whether they work or not is questionably.

    April 17, 2016 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Bob

    90% of all cancers are lifestyle related, but cancer is ALSO a disease of the aged. Very few people under the age of 35 develop cancers, and until 500 years ago, the average lifespan was less than 40 years.

    April 17, 2016 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Johnny Domingo

    Some German won the Nobel Prize about 100 years ago for killing cancer with Oxygen. It has been surmised that
    the lower percentage of Oxygen in the atmosphere is a leading contributing factor. Ice core samples show massive
    Oxygen drop over the last 100 years or so, due to deforestation and pollution. Low Oxygen and poor diet leads to acidic
    body, another leading factor, eat your salad and drink some unsweetened almond milk before bed to neutralize the acid in your body. Sugar is another factor. Cancer loves sugar. Smoking/coating your lungs with tar lessens the bodies ability to
    absorb Oxygen. Combine all these factors and you have the standard American. Yee Haw!

    April 17, 2016 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Beth

    Actually a individual in my church had cancer and he told us he was always cold no matter how much clothes and blankets he had on with the heat up that he could never stay warm and he actually compared himself to a king in the bible – King David who always felt cold, even under a lot of blankets as well – any many wonder if he didn't have cancer – its diff worth a look if anything but that's the only case I have ever heard of that was written down in the bible!

    April 18, 2016 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Adlai Armundsen

    Back when people didn't live long enough to get cancer. They were lucky to make to 40 or so.

    April 18, 2016 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Eshwar Iyer

    There are references of Cancer in ancient Indian texts also such as Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. In Sankrit cancer is called 'Arbudam'. There are classifications of cancer such as 'Saumya' meaning mild or in modern vocabulary benign, 'Asaadhya' meaing incurable etc

    There were various treatments prescribed which included surgery.

    May 13, 2016 at 06:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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