New research has suggested that cancers of all varieties are a fairly recent disease which implies that they are caused by environmental factors such as a pollution and the modern diet.
The evidence for this comes from a slightly unusual but incredibly interesting study from researchers at the University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology which is based in England. The team of researchers examined literature from ancient Egypt, Greece and other notable periods in antiquity and also performed autopsies on bodies from the classical period. They were looking for any references in the literature to cancerous illness of which they found vanishingly few. They then examined the bodies of mummies and other preserved remains for any signs of cancer.

Mummies were deemed to be of particular importance in this study because the mummification process preserves malignancy in cells far better than it does healthy tissues. This means that if the mummy had cancer in life, then it is almost certain that scientists will be able to find traces of the disease today. However, fairly astonishingly, only one of the large number of mummies assessed in this study showed evidence of cancer, according to Professor Michael Zimmerman who made the diagnosis of ancient Egyptian rectal cancer himself.

Other researchers have suggested that it is not especially surprising that only one mummy was found to bear the signs of cancer. They have said that cancer is a disease associated with longer life spans and therefore it would make sense that the people of the age of antiquity would fall prey to it less often, as they would tend to succumb to other illnesses much earlier in life. However, this line of reasoning has been contradicted by the sudden boom of cancer cases that arose during the Industrial Revolution. Childhood cancers, such as leukaemia, were among the many types of cancer that spiked in the age of rapid industrialisation. Not only does this suggest that cancer is not purely a disease associated with longevity but it also suggests that cancer might be caused by the processes of industry.

According to Professor Rosalie David, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death in the modern industrialised world, but as this research shows, it was an incredibly rare disease in the age of antiquity. She says that there is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer and so it would be foolhardy to attribute its rise as a cause of death to anything other than the effects of contemporary life.

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