Is Cancer Industrial?

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. … 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”. … Hundreds of mummies from all areas of the world have been examined and there are still only two publications showing microscopic confirmation of cancer. (more; HT Kurzweil)

That is from a press release; journal article quotes below. A very thought provoking result, though it would help if, for comparison, they estimated what fraction of modern bones and mummies show evidence of cancer.  It doesn’t fit very well with the observation that natural plant chemicals seem to cause more cancer than artificial chemicals.  So I remain confused. Those quotes:

Cancer still causes 165,000 deaths every year and is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. … Evidence of cancer in animal fossils, non-human primates and early humans is scarce. Scientific literature has provided a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal fossils. …

Greece. Several authors wrote about cancer (from the fifth century bce to 1300 ce) … The evidence suggests that the Greeks were the first to identify cancer as a specific disease. …

Palaeopathology … In studies of thousands of bones that represent the fossil record of Neanderthal man in Europe, the Stetten II skull bone from Stetten, Germany, (c.35,000 years bp) provides the only example of a lesion (new bone form) that might be related to a neoplasm. …

Tens of thousands of [ancient] skeletons have been examined but only a few diagnoses of possible and/or probable malignancies — based on gross appearance and occasional X-ray scans showing defects in or masses on bones — have been made. Gray specifically noted the total absence of any radiological evidence of malignancy in his survey of 133 mummies. …

The average lifespan of the wealthier classes was between 40 and 50 years, and a lower age-at-death of between 25 and 30 years is shown in palaeopathological studies of non-elite groups. … Many individuals did live to a sufficiently advanced age to develop other degenerative diseases, such as atherosclerosis, Paget’s disease of bone and arthritis. …

Why are ancient tumours rare? … In modern populations, tumours arising in bone primarily affect the young, so a similar pattern would be expected in ancient populations. … Another explanation for the rarity of tumours in ancient remains is that tumours might not be well preserved; however, experimental studies show that mummification preserves the features of malignancy. ..

We propose that the minimal diagnostic evidence for cancer in ancient remains indicates the rarity of the disease in antiquity. Carcinogenic environmental factors have been linked to up to 75% of human cancers, and the rarity of cancer in anti quity suggests that such factors are limited to societies that are affected by modern lifestyle issues such as tobacco use and pollution resulting from industrialization. (more)

Added 20Oct: Karl points us to an article saying “Wild animals die of cancer at about the same rate [as humans today]” and that animal cancer rates have been increasing lately.

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  • Joshua Fox

    Do modern hunter-gatherers have lower cancer rates at given ages?

  • gaffa

    Popular press coverage of this review article has been dreadful. The researchers did not, as some popular reports have claimed, perform a systematic search for cancer in almost a thousand mummies – rather they summarize results from a number of different studies of various kinds, studies which have not necessarily set out specifically to search for cancer. That this literature is short on cancer reports is interesting, sure, but we shouldn’t blow it out of proportion. If you were to ask cancer biologists and geneticists they would tend to disagree strongly with the purported conclusions.

    The biggest factor behind cancer is age (for obvious mechanistic reasons), so of course we expect to see more cancer in a society where people live longer and don’t die of other stuff before they have time to get cancer.

    I’m also sceptical towards our abilities to diagnose cancer in mummified people – it’s probably harder to do than in living people. The article notes this, and furthermore they write: Although the rarity of cancer in antiquity remains undisputed, the first published histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy demonstrates that new evidence is still forthcoming.

  • James D. Miller

    Genetics could be part of the explanation. Perhaps genes that made one susceptible to cancer also provided a reproductive advantage over the last 1,000 years. The human population explosion over this period almost certainly had a big effect on the distribution of some important human genes.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    Didn’t Galen describe a case of breast cancer?

  • Robert Koslover

    I’m also skeptical of the article. After all, there are no shortages of: (1) dangerous carcinogens in nature; and (2) modern idealists who will grasp at any straw to convince themselves that ancient, more “natural” environments were somehow healthier in every conceivable way. In reality, for most of human history, it has been the case that “[t]he life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” –Thomas Hobbes.

    • fructose

      Humans have never been solitary. Hobbes is also the man who popularized the notion of bellum omnia contra omnes.

      But that is simply factually inaccurate. Humans have always cooperated in groups, it is the natural way for humans to behave.

  • fructose

    This a very interesting line of research. Cancer incidence has begun to decline since the ’90s. Perhaps this is the delayed effect of going post-industrial?

  • Vladimir M.

    From the linked article:

    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.

    What about the fall in infant mortality? If all the kids with weak immune systems got weeded out early, one would expect that the cancer rates among the survivors would be at least somewhat lower that today, when almost all kids survive to adolescence and beyond.

  • DK

    No, it isn’t. Well, maybe a small part of it is but the rest is simply people not dying from other causes.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    If someone had lung cancer before the 20th century, could he have been diagnosed as having tuberculosis?

  • Cryonicsman

    Why should this question be limited to humans? Dogs and cats get cancer. There are 1000′s of cat mummies in Egypt that could be compared for cancer with modern domestic cats. Also, it would be interesting to compare current cancer rates in domestic dogs versus modern wolves and wild dogs.

  • sabril

    Like Koslover, I am skeptical for the same reasons.

    Here’s a question: If you examined 1000 random Americans under the age of 50 tomorrow, what percentage would have significant cancerous growth in their bodies?

    I would guess it’s pretty small.

    Another question is how representative a sample the mummies are. Perhaps when a Pharaoh died, his young healthy servants would be executed and mummified.

  • agnostic

    Cancer is absent in hunter-gatherers, so it’s at least a disease of civilization. Obviously the large chunk of cancer cases that are of the lung stems from industrialization, namely the spread of cigarettes.

    There’s going to be a big role for infectious agents causing cancer, since we’d otherwise evolve some defenses against it. Cervical cancer is infectious, and cancers of the gut (along with ulcers) have an infectious angle.

    So I’m not too skeptical of the claim that there was no cancer in antiquity — there was no HIV either. It doesn’t mean that HIV is linked mechanistically to industrialization, though. Ditto for cancer (aside from lung cancer, which clearly is).

    • Cyan

      Gotta tell you, comparing the origin of cancers* to the origin of HIV in this context is a biological “No. Just no.

      * the plural is because cancer is really a group of related diseases.

      • DK

        Seconding the “No. Just No” here. Besides, cancer is really a group of *unrelated* diseases that have, for the most part, only one thing in common.

    • Gnomonclast

       Completely wrong. Tobacco has been in use for far longer than the rampant spread of lung cancer. Cigarettes comprised of tobacco grown from radioactive soil has resulted in high rates of lung cancer, but not the plant itself. Weed is far more carcinogenic than is tobacco, and even when grown indoors. So, why is that? Hemp is so old a habit as to have produced specific receptor sites in our brains over the course of our evolution–yet no early causality between hemp and cancer…We once ate the drug. But think this through, and look at the evidence. Industry is indeed the culprit. And don’t blame tobacco; that is a phony ruse, and as a smoke am sick of this scapegoating.

  • Beryl Shaw

    In the process of mummification they removed the internal organs. Therefore a cancer such as almost killed me in 2001 would have been removed if I’d been mummified. So that invalidates these findings.You can’t find a cancer if it’s been taken out and destroyed.
    Also, I am old enough to be aware that many people died of things that were not named, even as lately as last century. You only have to read some of the earlier books where e.g. someone says ‘I have a lump —’ but does that mean it was cancer? Not necessarily – but that person died anyway. Early 1900s.

  • blink

    Can’t we explain this evidence by saying cancer is an old person’s disease? Yes, they found other diseases we typically associate with old people (arthritis, etc.), but I would like to see the ages of people who die from cancer today. How many cancer deaths today are among people <40 years old? If the number is low, the authors must overcome a strong presumption that cancer will not be found even in a highly carcinogenic environment.

  • Troy Camplin

    We have wiped out most other things that kill us, and we have to eventually die of something. Cancer and heart attacks are almost all that’s left.

  • libfree

    The first thing I thought when I read this piece was selection bias. How representative of the population are mummies?

  • Robin Hanson

    I just added to this post.

  • Dave

    The title,industrial, is needlessly specific and politicized.It implies that if not for industry there might be little cancer.

    It would be better to ask,is cancer environmental? This would allow agents such as fresh air( containing oxidants such as oxygen), and sunshine ( which can cause melanoma and other skin cancers) to be included as carcinogens.

    Really,to be brief,there is an idea out there that we can extrapolate epidemiological studies in a strong way to practically eliminate cancer. Just like we found that lung cancer was caused by smoking tobacco, and there are other strong epidemiological studies for some other rarer cancers we can possibly apply the epidemiology approach to explain and prevent most cancer. Thus you will read about a hundred times a year that” studies show” that this or that “might” reduce various cancers.
    You may read that the mythical Eastern Slobovians have practically no colon cancer,as they eat a diet largely of oregano. Soon your health food store is selling concentrated oregano tablets. What is not said is that they have may have a high level of some other cancer,such as liver cancer,thought to due to maternal transfer of hepatitis virus or die at an average age of 50 due to their harsh life on the Asian steeps. The point is that there are numerous types of bias in epidemiological and all other medical studies .

    Actually cancer has been an ever present threat. Long lived animals such as humans have numerous robust defenses against cancer,which must have evolved oi pre-industrial times. If they did evolve in pre-indsustrial times,the general idea that cancer is the result of industry doesn’t seem strong. However specific examples such a vinyl chloride and liver sarcoma or asbestos and mesothelioma will be found. So progress will be made not by talking about cancer in general,but by studying individual cancers. This will take take an industry.

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