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How Old Is Cancer?


Cancer researchers often ask themselves how far back cancer goes — the idea being that if we know more about how the disease has evolved, we might be able to better understand the causes, how it progresses, and how to stop it. Rosalie David at the University of Manchester and Michael Zimmerman at Villanova University ask this question in their paper in Nature. Cancer was rare in antiquity, they say, which poses a lot of questions about today's world and the carcinogens in it. However, they add, a histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy was recently published, showing that we don't know the whole story, though it is likely that cancer is more of a problem now than it was during the time of the Pharaohs.

In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe says that while David and Zimmerman pose an interesting question, the lack of evidence one way or the other makes it a hard one to answer. It can be quite hard to get meaningful histological data from an ancient bone sample, which is all researchers have to work with, he says. And while we have Egyptian mummies preserved, we don't have any Greek mummies — and the Greeks were some of the first to describe metastatic tumors and gave us the name for the disease. There is no denying the environmental causes of some cancers, Lowe says, like smoking and industrial chemicals. But longer lives can also be blamed as a "cause" of cancer — ancient Egyptians usually only lived until they were about 25 or 30 years old, which isn't enough time to develop all the cancers seen in longer-lived people today. In the end, he says, there just isn't enough evidence to definitively say whether cancer is an old problem or a new one.

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