The study of remains and literature from ancient Egypt and Greece and
earlier periods ? carried out at Manchester?s KNH Centre for Biomedical
Egyptology and published in Nature ? includes the first histological
diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy.
Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of
Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves
that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen
massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer ?
proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer.
Professor Rosalie David, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, said: ?In
industrialised 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.?
She added: ?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.?
The data includes the first ever histological diagnosis of cancer in an
Egyptian mummy by Professor Michael Zimmerman, a visiting Professor at the
KNH Centre, who is based at the Villanova University in the US. He diagnosed
rectal cancer in an unnamed mummy, an ?ordinary? person who had lived in the
Dakhleh Oasis during the Ptolemaic period (200-400 CE).
Professor 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?.