After an extensive study conducted on Egyptian mummies, some researchers in the United Kingdom have declared that cancer is an entirely man-made disease, the result of excesses of modern life.
Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for roughly one in eight of all deaths in 2004, according to the World Health Organization.
However, scientists have only found one case of the disease in investigations of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, researcher Rosalie David at the University of Manchester in England said in a statement.
A greater understanding of its origins could lead to treatments for the disease, which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK.
Michael Zimmerman, a visiting professor at Manchester University, said “In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases.”
He continued: “The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization.”
Professor Zimmerman and colleague Rosalie David analyzed possible references to the disease in classical literature and scrutinized signs in the fossil record and in mummified bodies.
Despite slivers of tissue from hundreds of Egyptian mummies being rehydrated and placed under the microscope, only one case of cancer has been confirmed.
This notion is aided and abetted by the scientific fact that tumors should be even better preserved by mummification, than healthy tissues.
Countering the argument that the ancient Egyptians didn’t live long enough to develop cancer, the researchers pointed out that other age-related diseases such as hardening of the arteries and brittle bones are evident.
Fossil evidence of cancer is also sparse, with scientific literature providing a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal fossils, and the journal Nature Reviews Cancer reports. Even the study of thousands of Neanderthal bones has provided only one example of a possible cancer.
However, it’s only until the 17th century that there appear accounts of the first descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers.
In addition, the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumors only occurred in the past 200 years or so, including scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775 and nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761.
Professor Rosalie David, who presented the findings to Professor Mike Richards, the UK’s cancer tsar and other oncologists at a conference earlier this year, said: “In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare.”
He continued: “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle. The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease.”
“We can make very clear statements on the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of data,” he added.
He also said: “Yet again extensive ancient Egyptian data, along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address.”
Dr Rachel Thompson, of World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This research makes for very interesting reading. About one in three people in the UK will get cancer so it is fairly commonplace in the modern world.”
He continued: “Scientists now say a healthy diet, regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight can prevent about a third of the most common cancers so perhaps our ancestors’ lifestyle reduced their risk from cancer.” [via Live Science]