Is Cancer a Disease of Modern Society?

Posted: October 18, 2010 in Misuse of Science
Tags: , ,

Sometimes I wonder how some papers actually make it through the peer review process.  A study of Egyptian mummies and ancient skeletons has found little evidence that they suffered from cancer. The authors of the study suggest that this means cancer is a modern disease. (1)  “This might be related to the prevalence of carcinogens in modern societies,” write Rosalie David of the University of Manchester, UK and Michael Zimmermann of Villanova University, Pennsylvania. Cancers, they add, are “limited to societies that are affected by modern lifestyle issues, such as tobacco use and pollution resulting from industrialization”.  What a load of crap!

The assertions have dismayed many cancer researchers, and have led to a rash of uncritical coverage in the popular press. So what should we make of the evidence from the mummies, and do they justify laying the blame for cancer firmly on modern society?

In a review of published analyses of tens of thousands of ancient skeletons and hundreds of mummies, David and Zimmermann found only a handful of cases of cancer. One recent finding, of colorectal cancer, was identified as the first ever discovered in a mummy. They also examined ancient texts and literature from Egypt and Greece, and say that there’s little sign that cancer was a common ailment.  Upon this analysis, thay make the outlandish suggestion that cancer is largely a modern disease.

In a press release put out by the University of Manchester David is quoted as saying, “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”  Believe me, I am nor alone in my consternation of so idiotic a statement.   There are dozens of natural causes of cancer, including ultraviolet light from the sun, natural radiation from radionuclides such as radon in rocks, cosmic rays, and infection by viruses that trigger cancer, such as the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer and hepatitis viruses that can cause liver cancer. Likewise, soot and smoke from fire contain a multitude of carcinogens, as do fungal aflatoxins.  And that doesn’t even include cancers with a genetic link.

Certainly there are elements of modern life that cause cancers, but most of them are down to poor lifestyle choices that people can do something about, not, as implied, because they are drowning in a sea of carcinogens from which there is no escape.Smoking is the most significant of these, causing around a quarter of all cancers globally. Other major lifestyle factors that pose cancer risks include heavy drinking; which can lead to liver and gullet cancers; excessive sunbathing by fair-skinned individuals, which can lead to skin cancer; and obesity and lack of exercise, which can promote cancers of the gut.

The study is flawed in so many ways that it really is embarrassing.  Almost all the mummies and skeletons included in the study were of people who died before the age of 50. Ageing is one of the major causes of cancer.  The authors claim that because they found evidence for other diseases of ageing, such as arthritis and hardening of the arteries, that cancer should therefore have shown up too.  Where have these people been?  The morphological changes associated with both of the afflictions occur years and decades before symptoms or debilitation occurs.  Autopsies done on physically fit American soldiers who died in combat have found signs of hardening of the arteries in nearly all cases.  In contrast, in men today, 90 per cent of cancers occur after age 50. If you examined the bodies of 1000 modern men who died before 50, you wouldn’t find many cancers either.

Just a thought, but I wonder what these two researchers would have to say about the prevalence of tumors in fossilized dinosaur bones. (2)

Anyway, in the study, one of the main arguments for cancer being an affliction of modernization was the apparent lack of evidence for “common” bone cancers in children. But again, the figures don’t bear this out. Bone cancers in children are relatively rare, affecting about 1 in 10,000 children. Even if you have 10,000 childhood mummies, you’d be lucky to find a single case!

Because of so much backlash, particularly from cancer researchers, David has backpedalled a bit. “We’re not saying what the explanation is, we’re proposing its modern living also taking into account that people living longer might be to blame,” she says.  Cancer support groups and charity organizations are not very happy with this junk science. Their big fear is that by blaming industrialization generally for cancer, it will make people feel helpless about the situation, and divert attention from the many changes they can make to their behavior to reduce their risk, such as quitting smoking, exercising more, drinking less and eating more healthily.

  1. David, Rosalie and Michael Zimmerman. 2010. Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between? Nature Reviews Cancer, 10: 728-733.
  2. Rothschild, D. H. et al.  2009. Epidemiologic study of tumors in dinosaurs.  Naturwissenschaften, 90 (11): 495-500.

Jim Hatem


  1. Altair Maine says:

    Ahh, now we can be agreed. Mostly. 🙂

    Yeah, they sound like idiots. But do you happen to have a link to the full-text paper without paying Nature for it? Satisfying idle curiosity about a probably-bunk paper just isn’t worth the money to me.

    Yet I’m hesitant to condemn them outright based on news articles – science reporting is notoriously poor. Is it possible that the strongest parts of their arguments are simply not being covered because the reporters are dumb? I have a nearly inexhaustible faith in the ability of the media to misrepresent scientific arguments.

    I can *imagine*, for instance, a statistical argument that compared the cancer incidence rate in mummy samples with a comparable modern population and found that it was significantly lower. And such an argument could be made convincingly, with the right data. Which is not to say that the paper in fact has such a basis; I’d just like to read it. (And I’d begin very skeptical – I think that cancer is mostly a disease of aging, with a few noteworthy exceptions like lung cancer. But I’d be willing to entertain a statistical argument to the contrary.)

    Or maybe they’re just as stupid as the news articles make them sound. Probably, given the bone-headed (hah!) statements about childhood bone cancer.

    • I just have a hard copy that I printed at the library. Check your library to see if they subscribe to one of the journal subscription services.

    • Sam Kim says:

      Mr. Maine–

      I can download all of Nature’s articles for free through UCLA’s proxy server. If you would like a copy, contact me on fb.

      • Sam, I prefer you not give out email addresses here so I edited to fb. Also, I have stopped posting comment links (for now) because of some link-back issues and spammers hitching a ride. Got 400 spams in one day a couple of weeks ago! Hope you understand.

  2. Altair Maine says:

    Yeah, they probably do. But I live at school. I’m going to presume if you have the full text that the article is just as stupid as the reporting makes it sound, then.

  3. Mary T says:

    Well that’s just silly, reading the second sentence was enough for the thought “waaaiit….isn’t that just because they didn’t live long enough?”
    but I’m sure that is because you must have mentioned this in class once 🙂

    OH! Mr. Maine I still have one of your Science magazines that I borrowed (with every intention of returning..) I’ll be sure to bring it by when I visit next 🙂

    • Altair Maine says:

      Mary, to be honest, Science is a weekly journal and they just build up pretty rapidly. When the stack at home gets outrageously large, I haul them in to school.

      Since I have a subscription, I can just download any archived article running back about 150 years anyway. So I’m not particularly concerned that an individual old paper issue is missing. Don’t worry about it. Heck, if you want to steal a few dozen more, you can feel free. My classroom is cluttered. 🙂

      Yeah, I know that any library will subscribe to Nature and its ancillary journals. And if it were an article that I really needed to read, that would be worth the effort. But satisfying idle curiosity about some bogus “research” just doesn’t pass the threshold to get me to detour from my usual route home.

      • Sam K. says:

        The article is just as mediocre as Hatem makes it out to be. Don’t bother making any detours.

      • Mary T says:

        Well in that case, I should do the right thing and help you get rid of some clutter 🙂 Much appreciated though, I was loathe to let go of the one I’ve got

  4. jackofjacks says:

    This study was publisized all over the news and yet it was a worthless study.

  5. KathyS says:

    I am with you, Hatem, I don’t know how something like this got published in such a respected journal.

  6. E=MC2 says:

    I never knew that dinosaurs got cancer. Interesting.

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