How the ancient world dealt with cancer

Cancer found in million-year-old fossil
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Story highlights

  • Cancer has become more common recently because of the modern lifestyle
  • Ancient Greece first identified cancer as a specific illness

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2014.

(CNN)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 past 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 started living longer only 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.
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    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 A.D. 200 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.
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    From about A.D. 500 to 1500 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.