One myth prevalent among alternative medicine enthusiasts is that cancer only came along relatively recently. The insinuation is that the disease is caused by contemporary perniciousness like processed foods, modern lifestyles, and agriculture developments.
Some proponents of this hypothesis cite a publication by anthropologists A.R. David and M.R. Zimmerman. But prolific skeptic blogger Orac notes that theirs is an opinion piece, not a scholarly scientific study.
The duo claimed there was only one case of cancer found among hundreds of mummies, so this shows that, if not nonexistent, cancer was at least much rarer a few thousand years ago. Orac counters that the average Ancient Egyptian lifespan lasted barely a quarter-century, which is one-third of what modern Westerners enjoy.
Cancer, being a disease that primarily afflicts the elderly, would be just as infrequent among 25-year-old Chicagoans today as it was among those who watched the Pyramids being built. Further, mummies were limited to the elite class and thus did not represent a broad cross-section of Egyptian society. Moreover, Orac wrote that mummification includes removal of the organs, which is where most cancer incidents arise. Beyond all this, there are ancient writings that allude to cancer and its treatments.
Cancer has always been with humans because it results from genetics, random mutation, viruses, obesity, and non-environmental factors. There are some modern developments that might make cancer more likely in specific instances, but that is far different than it being entirely a new phenomenon.
Still, professor Rosalie David asserts that, “In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.”
Yet, as Orac points out, the natural environment includes radon, UV light, aflatoxin, HPV, and hepatitis B, all of which can lead to cancer.
But the biggest factor is aging. As humans grow older, their bodies are more subject to genetic error, as well as having more time to come into contact with carcinogens. About three in four cancer cases occur in those 60 and over. If we were looking at only those 25 and under, the incidents of cancer would be as rare as they were among Ancient Egyptians.
That’s not so say modern lifestyles can’t play a role in one getting cancer. Being sedentary, smoking, and obese can all play a role. But King Tut lighting up, lying around, and pigging out would have left him just as vulnerable.