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.
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.