I get so tired of this. I write a lot about cancer because of myths and tropes pushed by the pseudo-medicine world, like modern cancer is entirely a man-made disease. Proved by scientific researchers. And blessed by magical wizards everywhere.
This claim made by the pseudoscience, woo-pushing, junk-medicine believing writers of the article is based on a press-release from the University of Manchester where this research was done. Of course, in the hierarchy of quality biomedical evidence, press releases rank right near the bottom, just above the pseudoscience pushed by the Natural News.
If you’re going to make an extraordinary claim like “modern cancer is a man-made disease,” well you better bring extraordinary evidence. And a press release absolute does not qualify as extraordinary. The whole point of a press release is to “promote” the university. It is not peer-reviewed. And there are stories where the press release isn’t even reviewed by the authors of the study.
But the press release is based on an article published by AR David and MR Zimmerman in Nature Review of Cancer, a highly respected cancer journal. So you all are saying, “wow, that’s evidence.”
Well only if evidence is based on opinion. You see, the article by David and Zimmerman was published in the section of the journal called “Perspectives.” A perspective, especially in this context is a “point of view,” a “viewpoint”, a “stance”, or a “position.” But David and Zimmerman are highly respected anthropologists who have published extensively in real journals. But what do they know about cancer. Let’s look.
Is modern cancer a man made disease?
David and Zimmerman’s hypothesis would hold credence, except for lots of things. The first of which is that the validity of their epidemiological evidence is weak, possibly because they aren’t epidemiologists. Let’s look at the major issues with their “research”:
Their major claim is that that they found only one case of cancer in “hundreds of mummies.” But is this indicative of anything that could be useful to understanding cancer? Probably not.
- The average lifespan of an Egyptian would have been around 26 years old. Today it’s over 60, and closer to 78-80 in developed countries. For lots of reasons, cancer generally arise in later years, something not experience by the Egyptians of that era.
- The researchers examined mummies, not a broad, unbiased population of ancient Egyptian (probably impossible unless there’s a time machine available to science researchers). The best preserved mummies generally came from the upper class of Egypt, which may or may not have had some advantage against cancer.
- The are three kinds of mummification in Egypt –depending on the deceased’s class, it went from the well preserved type down to the cheap type. But it was clear that all three versions of mummification required the removal of organs, including the brain. Of the 250 different cancers, a bulk of them occur in these organs, even at a younger age.
- If you assume most of the dead where in their 20s, most cancers would be very small and early in development. Something that could be missed just through observation, but hidden completely by the mummification. Critics of this study have stated that in fact with epidemiological and molecular studies of the mummies, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that cancer is an ancient disease.
More than just criticizing David and Zimmerman’s article, there is a lot of evidence, much of it qualifying as extraordinary evidence, that pretty much refute the claims of the University of Manchester researchers:
- One group has found writings in ancient Egyptian manuscripts that describe both “modern” cancers and innovative (and sometimes ineffective” treatments for those cancers. If human cancer were so rare in Egypt, why would they be writing about it?
- In S. Mukherjee’s book, Emperor of all Maladies – a Biography of Cancer, one of my favorite books about the facts and science of cancer, Dr. Muhkerjee describes a papyrus from around 3000 BCE which generally is believed to be the earliest known description of cancer per se. In other words, we’ve got pretty fine evidence that humans were afflicted with cancer over 5000 years ago.
- M Binder et al., examined metastatic cancer in a skeleton from Nubia, about 3300 years ago. They mention that the lack of evidence of bone cancer in ancient skeletons has led to the common misconception that cancer was very rare in ancient times – probably because of a healthier living environment. However, Binder et al. shows that the most common types of malignant cancer, particularly those causing secondary bone involvement, exhibit a strong correlation with age. And of course, modern human are older.
- The assumption that all cancers are a result of some environmental challenge leads to many of these beliefs. Cancers result from genetic predisposition, random mutations, viral infections, obesity and several other non-environmental causes. Yes, lots of cancers are caused by the environment – smoking (and second hand smoke), air pollution, radiation (from the sun or the environment), all lead to increases in cancer risk. But some of those risks existed before modern civilization arose.
Age is the major risk factor for cancer
I need to be blunt. We can invent all kinds of causes of cancer, but age is the major risk factor. Why? Because we accumulate genetic errors over time. Because we have more time to have contact cancer causing viruses like HPV and Hepatitis B. Because we have more time experience various environmental challenges like smoking.
Cancer is generally a diseases of the elderly. I know, many of the readers will repeat anecdotal stories about children with cancer – there is no argument that it does happen in children, but I’ve never claimed that it didn’t happen. It’s just that the bulk of cancer diagnoses today are in the elderly.
According to Cancer Research UK, three quarters of cancer diagnoses is in people aged 60 and over, and more than a third (36 per cent) of those are in people aged 75 and over. In other words, what researcher would be surprised that cancer was a very rare event in ancient populations where it would be a miracle if someone made it to 30 or 40 years old?
There’s really no evidence that cancer was rarer in ancient populations, especially in studies that have a high amount of selection bias (mummies), and a lack of actually laying out how to define a diagnosis of cancer in a mummy. It may be impossible.
Yes, there is a relationship between increased risk of cancer and some of our modern lifestyles. Smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption, not being vaccinated against cancer causing viruses, sedentary living, and several other issues lead to higher risks of cancer. And even if you avoid all those lifestyle issues, a random particle of radiation from the sun can induce a cancer.
A final word or two
But the real reason for the apparent difference in cancer rates between modern and ancient humans has not to do with the environment – it has everything to do with our modern life expectancy
Professor Rosalie David, the author of the mummy study, claimed, from her analysis of the possible reference to the disease in classical literature, fossil records and mummified bodies, claimed:
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. 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.
All that sounds good, except she’s lacking any evidence supporting her beliefs. And if she’s going to make an extraordinary claim, we demand extraordinary evidence. That doesn’t qualify.
Then Professor David made this unsupported claim – “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.”
Except for radon gas which percolates from the soil. UV light from the sun. Aflatoxin from the mold Aspergillus flavus, a powerful carcinogen, found in food. Human papillomavirus and hepatitis b viruses, both of which evolved “naturally,” and have infected the human population since humans arose. Random mutations because of translation and transcription errors of the human genome. A random particle of radiation from the air or ground that causes one mutation.
In other words, Professor David, typical of the problem with the Appeal to Authority, may be an outstanding anthropologist and Egyptology expert. But her remarkable ignorance in epidemiology and cancer biology demolishes her whole hypothesis. If only a real oncologist and epidemiologist were involved with the study, maybe we could have had a better conclusion and recommendation. Instead, we get more junk medicine woo that will be used to “prove” that GMO foods plus who knows what else is causing a cancer epidemic.
Editor’s note – this article was updated for Cancer Day.
- Binder M, Roberts C, Spencer N, Antoine D, Cartwright C. On the antiquity of cancer: evidence for metastatic carcinoma in a young man from ancient Nubia (c. 1200 BC). PLoS One. 2014 Mar 17;9(3):e90924. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090924. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 24637948; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3956457.
- David AR, Zimmerman MR. Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between? Nat Rev Cancer. 2010 Oct;10(10):728-33. doi: 10.1038/nrc2914. Epub 2010 Sep 3. PubMed PMID: 20814420.
- Faltas B. Cancer is an ancient disease: the case for better palaeoepidemiological and molecular studies. Nat Rev Cancer. 2011 Jan;11(1):76; author reply 76. doi: 10.1038/nrc2914-c1. PubMed PMID: 21179178.
- Karpozilos A, Pavlidis N. The treatment of cancer in Greek antiquity. Eur J Cancer. 2004 Sep;40(14):2033-40. PubMed PMID: 15341975.
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