According to skeletal records from Ancient Egypt, our cancer rates are getting worse
The nature of cancer makes it very difficult to be confident of ever truly beating it, even if certain creatures are bafflingly immune. It has, in fact, been with us for thousands of years, and the history of treatments shows just how ineffective we have been from one generation to the next.
It’s oddly reassuring that it is just a part of life on Earth, and not a development of our modern lives. Or it would be if we could be confident that things are not actively getting worse – which brings me onto a new study from The University of Ontario which suggests that this is very much the case. How can we possibly know? Skeletal records from Dakleh in ancient Egypt’s western desert.
The researchers analysed 1,087 skeletons buried between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago looking for lesions likely consistent with carcinoma. In all, they found evidence of cancer in just six of the skeletons. By analysing the lesion location and type alongside gender and age, the researchers were able to come up with each individual case study. These were:
A 3-5-year-old with leukaemia
Two young women in their 20s and 30s with cervical cancer
A man in his 20s with testicular cancer
A woman in her 50s with metastatic carcinoma
A man in his 50s with rectal cancer
In the case of the latter of these, the tumour was actually preserved.
But what’s really interesting about this is we actually have a survey of a population, and can compare cancer rates to life in 2018 – and it’s not good news. Using this data, we can estimate that the Egyptian cancer rate was around one in 1,000. The current lifetime cancer risk for the western world in 2018? Close to 50%. “Thus, the lifetime cancer risk in today’s Western societies is 100 times greater than in ancient Dakhleh,” the researchers write in the abstract.
Things can only get… worse?
Okay, you can pick some holes in this, if you want the glass to be nearly rather than completely empty. For starters, not all cancers leave a skeletal lesion, so it’s possible that some of the symptom-free 1,081 skeletons did actually die from a form of cancer. Additionally, cancer rates increase with age, and just 7.7% of ancient Egyptians lived beyond the age of 60. Given that half of all cancers affect those over the age of 70, that’s not insignificant.
But not that significant, according to the researchers. They believe even taking this into account, we’re still looking at a cancer rate 50-times lower in Ancient Egypt.
“In our opinion, it is doubtful that even if the ancient Dakhlans had the same life expectancy as modern western societies the rate of cancer would have been equivalent,” the researchers write. “The carcinogenic load in their past environments would have been considerably less carcinogenic than modern western societies.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. While the researchers told LiveScience that it was likely the ancient Egyptians had no specific cure, and may have resorted to treating the visible symptoms instead, our survival rates are improving all the time. The survival rate for testicular cancer which killed one of the subjects in ancient Egypt, for example, is around 98% nowadays – and survival rates for frequently lethal glioblastomas are improving with innovative technology solutions. In some cases, artificial intelligence is proving more adept at spotting skin cancer than humans, and big data is allowing for personalised treatments rather than the one-size-fits-all of the recent past.
In other words, cancer rates may be higher today than they were in Ancient Egypt, but if you end up with a worrying diagnosis, it’s no contest as to when you’d want to be treated.