“Squawk like an Egyptian” (Man-made cancer)


A popular myth in anti-doctor and anti-pharmaceutical circles is that cancer is man-made. The idea is that the disease either didn’t exist or existed very rarely thousands of years ago, but has increased exponentially due to persons being bombarded with artificial toxins. Even more tenuous proclamations blame GMOs, vaccines, WiFi, or whatever other entity one wishes to demonize.

The idea of man-made cancer stems primarily from a study by professors Rosalie David and Michael Zimmerman. The researchers examined nearly 1,000 mummies and found just one who had developed cancer. The professors therefore concluded that the disease is of recent origin. They went so far as to claim that cancer is “limited to societies that are affected by modern lifestyle issues, such as tobacco use and pollution resulting from industrialization.” Officials from the University of Manchester lauded the study in a press release that stated, “Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, along with few references to cancer in ancient literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity.”

It’s true that the cancer rate in ancient Egypt, as well as in Rome and Greece, was much less than it is today. But that’s because cancer is predominantly a senior disease. According to Dr. Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK, 75 percent of cancer hits persons 60 or over, a demographic that includes just 18 of the population. In men, 90 percent of cancers occur in those over 50. If the average lifespan were to hit 125, virtually all men making this milestone would develop prostate cancer, but this would be due to drastically longer lives, not because a futuristic nefarious agent will have perfected a way to commit microbial misdeeds. Conversely, in times and societies where hitting 50 was as noteworthy as making 100 today, it would be expected for cancer to be rare.

The David-Zimmerman study said that besides environmental factors, lifestyle also has an impact. It’s true that lifestyles make a difference in the likelihood of developing cancer. Smoking, drinking, overeating, forgoing sunscreen, and being sedentary all make cancer more likely. But these are choices, meaning persons can do something to positively impact them. Cancers that would result from these activities are the result of poor decisions are not evidence of society being awash in a carcinogenic wave. True, there are some pesticides and industrial solvents that could can cause cancer with prolonged, concentrated exposure, but these are responsible for a tiny fraction of the disease, and steps can be taken to reduce the risk, such as the exposed person wearing protective equipment.

The authors are correct that pursuing a more active lifestyle and eating a balanced diet can help stave off cancer. And their point about cancer being rare 3,000 years ago is true, though this was accompanied with a correlation-causation error that blamed industrial developments, not increased lifespans, for the disease’s surge.

So at this point, we have one truth and one probably unintentional misuse of numbers. But they jumped the analytical shark with an absurd claim that would delight Gwyneth Paltrow, the Food Babe, and Doctor Oz. David wrote, “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.”  The (literally) most glaring error here is failing to consider the sun. Ultraviolet radiation, after all, is the number one cause of skin cancer.

Going to much smaller examples of nature, carcinogens exist in bacteria and viruses. These infectious agents are responsible for up to 25 percent of cancers, including the human papillomavirus. And one of main reasons stomach cancers are less prevalent than 100 years ago is because of refrigeration and improved living conditions.

Then there’s radon, a natural product of granite. In gas form, it is responsible for about 10 percent of lung cancers. Additionally, there are chemicals found naturally in foods and produced by molds or plants that can cause cancer. Even soot and smoke from fire contain carcinogens that could result in cancer with prolonged exposure.

But at least David and Zimmerman conducted original research and submitted their findings for peer review. We will now transition to those unencumbered by scientific protocol. These types attribute cancer to whatever modern development they find most intolerable.

Some anti-GMO types point out that genetic modification has been going on for about 30 years and cancers have gone up over time, so, voilà. Even a rudimentary critical thinker would recognize this as the post hoc fallacy, where because one event comes before another, a connection is assumed without offering evidence and without considering other possible causes.

A seemingly more reasonable position is to blame GMOs for cancer because of reports that both bacillus thuringiensis (which is incorporated into insect-resistant plants during genetic modification) and glyphosate (a herbicide used on some GM crops) will, when applied to cells in a petri dish, cause some cells to experience abnormal growth. But University of Florida horticulturist Dr. Kevin Folta noted that cells in a petri dish behave differently than cells in a human body, and he added there is zero evidence consumption of GM foods would cause the change that cells in a petri dish undergo.  

Another alarmist camp blames WiFi for cancer. But WiFi operates in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and the risk of cancer only begins at the high end of ultraviolet light. A similar slander targets cell phones and accuses them of causing brain cancer. However, the ubiquitous nature of these devices and the lack of corresponding brain cancer pandemic show this to be an unfounded fear.

Smart meters are another modern development forced to stand in a police lineup of suspected carcinogenic agents. This is based on the misuse of a fact, specifically that ionizing radiation can break the bond that holds molecules together and possibly have carcinogenic results. But this danger does not extend to low-frequency fields, which is where smart meters operate.

And what pseudoscientific scaremongering would be complete without pinning unwarranted blame on vaccines? The horribly-misnamed website Truth About Cancer notes that most vaccine inserts contain the phrase, “This vaccine has not been evaluated for its carcinogenic potential.”

The website then issues an alarm about today’s vaccine schedule being thrice as long as what it was 40 years ago, leaving out that there are 95 percent fewer antigens injected now than then. It then joints the post hoc parade with, “Coinciding with the ever-increasing vaccine schedule are soaring rates of chronic illness in children, including cancer, which has skyrocketed and is now the leading cause of death by disease in children past infancy.” Yes, especially now that no babies in the West are dying from polio or smallpox.

The website next rails against formaldehyde without mentioning that the compound occurs naturally in the human body in greater amounts than what vaccines contain. Finally it recommends avoiding vaccines altogether in favor of eating fruits and vegetables, getting enough rest, sunshine, and exercise. There’s nothing wrong with doing all that and also getting vaccinated. I do love my bananas, sleep, 70 degree days, and time on the treadmill. But my joy from those pursuits would be greatly curtailed if I indulged in them while enduring Whooping Cough.



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