Why was cancer detected in only one in a few hundred Egyptian mummies? Why is there such scarce reference to cancer in ancient Greek or Egyptian texts?

A study carried out by researchers from the University of Manchester, England and published in Nature suggests that cancer, especially cancer among children and young adults is not simply due to our living longer these days – it must be a man-made disease. The scientists say theirs is “the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy”.

Investigators at Manchester University’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology say their study proves that during the Egyptian mummies’ time, cancer was extremely rare. After investigating hundreds of mummies, they came across just one case of cancer – worldwide only two cases have ever been detected. Incidence of cancer, especially childhood cancer exploded after the Industrial Revolution.

Professor Rosalie David, at Manchester University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. 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.”

Professor Michael Zimmerman, a visiting professor at the KNH Centre, made the first ever histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy. The mummy was said to be an ordinary person, from the Ptolemaic period.

Zimmerman said:

In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases. 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.”

The investigators examined literary evidence from ancient Greece and Egypt, as well as mummified remains from ancient Egypt. They also carried out medical examinations of animal and human remains further back in history, as far back as the period of the dinosaurs.

They found that:

  • According to animal, non-human primates, and early human remains and fossil evidence, cancer was extremely uncommon. One Edmontosaurus fossil of unknown primary origin had evidence of metastatic cancer.
  • Virtually all evidence of tumors, which were extremely uncommon anyway, were benign.
  • The few malignancies were found were in non-human primates, but none of them are cancers found in modern adult humans.

Atherosclerosis, Paget’s disease of bone, and osteoporosis did exist in ancient Greece and Egypt – diseases that affect humans when they are older; old enough to develop common modern cancers. If humans at that time lived long enough to develop those diseases, the extreme rarity of cancer cannot be put down to very short life spans.

People in those days lived long enough to develop the cancer adults develop today. Also, there is no evidence of any childhood cancers in ancient Greece or Egypt. Cancer among children is definitely much more common today than it was in ancient Greece/Egypt.

Some people have suggested that tumors do not preserve well, so evidence of them disappears over time. However, Zimmerman says mummification preservers malignancy features; in fact, it preserves tumors much better than normal tissue.

Of all the hundreds of mummies examined all over the world, just two have microscopic evidence of cancer. Radiologists have examined all the mummies at museums in Cairo and Europe and found no evidence of cancer at all.

Evidence of cancer and medical procedures, such as operations for cancers does not appear until the 17th century, the researchers reveal. Scientific literature depicting distinctive tumors have only been about for the last 200 years, when data started to be documented about chimney sweeps with scrotal cancer in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761, and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832.

Professor David said: “Where there are cases of cancer in ancient Egyptian remains, we are not sure what caused them. They did heat their homes with fires, which gave off smoke, and temples burned incense, but sometimes illnesses are just thrown up.

The ancient Egyptian data offers both physical and literary evidence, giving a unique opportunity to look at the diseases they had and the treatments they tried. They were the fathers of pharmacology so some treatments did work.

They were very inventive and some treatments thought of as magical were genuine therapeutic remedies. For example, celery was used to treat rheumatism back then and is being investigated today. Their surgery and the binding of fractures were excellent because they knew their anatomy: there was no taboo on working with human bodies because of mummification. They were very hands on and it gave them a different mindset to working with bodies than the Greeks, who had to come to Alexandria to study medicine.”

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.”