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Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?

Abstract

In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. The history of this disorder has the potential to improve our understanding of disease prevention, aetiology, pathogenesis and treatment. A striking rarity of malignancies in ancient physical remains might indicate that cancer was rare in antiquity, and so poses questions about the role of carcinogenic environmental factors in modern societies. 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.

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Figure 1: Benign bony proliferations of the femur can be mistaken for tumours.
Figure 2: Mummification preserves features of malignancy.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge The Leverhulme Trust and The Wellcome Trust for their support of research undertaken at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, The University of Manchester.

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Glossary

Black bile

According to the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen, an excess of this bodily fluid might cause cancer. This humoral theory survived until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

Edmontosaurus

A Cretaceous duck-billed dinosaur.

Fluorosis

Soft tissue ossification (bone formation) owing to excessive exposure to fluorine. This condition is seen today in animals grazing in volcanic areas, which are high in fluorine.

Hippocratic Corpus

Earliest Greek medical treatises (c.410 BCE to c.360 BCE), attributed to Hippocrates of Cos, although authorship is unproven. It contains diverse writings on many topics, and includes fragments of other authors' texts60.

Palaeopathological specimens

Ancient human or animal remains in which the evidence of disease is preserved and can be studied.

Papyrus Ebers

Purchased by Edwin Smith in Luxor, Egypt, in 1862, this document was published by Georg Ebers in 1872. The longest of the Egyptian medical papyri, it dates from c.1538 BCE and contains texts apparently drawn from many sources. These include an important treatise on the function of the heart and its vessels, and pharmaceutical, surgical and magical treatments for a range of diseases61.

Papyrus Kahun

This earliest extant Egyptian medical papyrus (c.1825 BCE) was excavated at Kahun, Egypt, the site of a pyramid workers' town excavated in 1889 CE. The world's earliest known gynaecological treatise, it provides prescriptions relating to gynaecological diseases and conditions, contraception, pregnancy testing, sterility and identifying the gender of unborn children.

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David, A., Zimmerman, M. Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?. Nat Rev Cancer 10, 728–733 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrc2914

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