Walk like an Egyptian

Yesterday, with great fanfare, a professor from the University of Manchester and a Villanova University University professor, release a paper in the science journal Nature and suggest that cancer is a man-made disease, extremely rare until the advent of modern pollution, sedentary lifestyles and diets heavy on Haagen Daz ice cream and Whoppers.

The two scholars, Rosalie David of Manchester, and David Zimmerman, of Villanova, examine hundreds of Egyptian mummies for signs of cancer, since they do the study as part of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology. Then, they do a survey of medical studies of dinosaur remains and cases of non-human primate cancers. They look for references to cancer in the classical literature of Egypt, Greece, and other historical societies.

Did this Egyptian mummy, lying in the Louvre, have cancer?

They find only a few cases of mummy cancer, and a few dozen fossilized animal malignancies. They say that references to operations for breast cancer and other cancers did not begin until the 17th century. Scientific literature about cancer, they say, does not emerge until the next century with descriptions of scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps (1775), nasal cancer in snuff users (1761) and Hodgkin’s disease (1832).

All this leads Prof. Zimmerman to give the Manchester PR department this quote, ““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 study is reported yesterday in at least 100 medical and non-medical outlets. Some, like England’s Daily Mail, report the study with little questioning. Others, mostly scientific and medical sites, call the study controversial.

My favorite quote from all this ferment is this from the Daily Mail: “Dr Rachel Thompson, of World Cancer Research Fund, said: ‘This research makes for very interesting reading.” That’s science-speak for “This is probably utter BS, but I don’t want to say that to a world-famous newspaper with millions of readers.”

I feel like coming down on both sides:

The conclusion of this study just makes intuitive sense. I think it is undeniable that we in modern society are poisoning ourselves endlessly with everything from BPA plastics to particulates in car exhaust to pesticides that make possible industrial-scale crops of fussy plants like strawberries. Cancer is now second only to cardiovascular disease as the grim reaper of modern times, killing 7.4 million in 2004 (about 13 percent of all deaths), according to the World Health Organization.

But how many cancers do our modern comforts cause? I think it’s probably impossible to know. There are probably more causes than there are cancers and that’s saying something.

I don’t have a PhD, but even I can see the holes in the research these professors rally to their argument. Of all the billions of people who have lived, they only examine a few hundred mummies. I understand their dilemma: most tumors decompose away with the bodies they kill. But a few hundred is hardly a large sample in the great sweep of history. And they don’t take into account that most Egyptians couldn’t afford to be mummified. It was a luxury mostly limited to pharaohs and nobles, according to the Smithsonian.

Then the authors of the study say that scientific references to cancer don’t occur until the 1600s. Well, maybe that’s because the scientific method wasn’t formalized until then! That’s probably also the reason that specific cancers don’t begin to be described until this time.

Another argument the professors use is that literary references to cancer are very rare. But I would suggest this: Before the modern period, lots of people just dropped dead and no one really knew why. When I think of all the high-tech imaging that has been trained on my breast cancer, it’s awesome. If I was living in 1500, I would just live on in ignorance until the cancer metastasized everywhere. Then I would start to feel bad, suffer for a few months and die. I doubt anyone would do an autopsy to see all those metastasized tumors. When my Dad was dying of metastatic lung cancer, the cancer itself did not make him feel sick until the very, very end. Then he stopped eating, and then finally started throwing up bile and was dead in a couple days. So I bet lots of people throughout history have died of cancer. But their survivors didn’t know that cancer was the killer, so no one wrote about it.

Of course, this is just my educated guess.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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