Meditations of an oncology geek

What kinds of cancer existed in ancient times?

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17 December 2011

This week’s article comes from Randal Hollis in San Diego, CA:

What kinds of cancer existed in ancient times?

I seriously love this question. It very nicely addresses a common misconception about cancer: that it is a contemporary disease.

For this I will delve into my favorite book of 2010, which happened to win the Pullitzer Prize in Nonfiction and is officially endorsed by the Cancer for Dummies blog: The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

(A book review by Yours Truly can be found here:

In 1930 an ancient papyrus scroll dated from the Old Kingdom in Egypt was translated, believed originally be the work of Imhotep, around 2625 BCE. The Edwin Smith Papyrus was an ancient combination of case-study and surgical instruction manual, and outlined two cases of a growing, spreading mass that was largely inoperable. Scientific historians believe these cases to be the first written record of cancer, over 4700 years ago! (pg. 40)

Image: The Edwin Smith Papyrus

The word “Cancer” is analogous with “Crab”, and the term was first used to describe the condition by Hippocrates around 400 BCE. “The tumor, with its clutch of swollen blood vessels around it, reminded Hippocrates of a crab dug in the sand with its legs spread in a circle.” Although few tumors actually resemble crabs, medical writers in the coming centuries added embellishments. (pg. 47)

The likelihood of ancient specimens of cancer is very small. This is in part due to the fact that most tissues where cancers arise are epithelial and soft tissues that typically decompose. Tumors of hard tissue, like osteosarcomas of the bone, are comparatively rare. In 1990 paleopathologist Arthur Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota at Duluth had the opportunity to perform necropsies on a “treasure trove” of naturally mummified bodies from a grave in the Atacama Desert (southern Peru) dating back to the Chiribaya people (AD 850-1470). In one of the specimens he discovered an osteosarcoma (bone tumor) on the upper arm of a woman that died in her mid-thirties! (pg. 43)

Mukherjee goes on to describe several cases of Egyptian mummies that do not contain tumors per se, but contain hollowed out regions of bone that were likely burrowed out by ancient tumor metastases!

These examples are by no means exhaustive, and I do not want to plagerise Mukerjee’s footwork, so I will stop there. These examples all date from before the Industrial Revolution, electricity, modern chemistry, and the nuclear age. Cancer is an old disease that has been around for a long time.

As to what kinds of cancer existed in ancient times, the records are not robust enough to make assessments of cancer incidence rates compared to today, but the records that do exist indicate that ancient people developed breast cancer, lymphomas, osteosarcomas (bone cancer), liver cancer, and other types.

It is not until our civilization that it has been remotely possible to treat cancer, much less cure any patient. That itself should be a point of pride for us modern day-ers!


Written by Ryon

December 16th, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Posted in Science Blog

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