Scientists estimate that roughly four out of ten Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lives.1 But compelling new data shows this wasn’t always the case…
Recent research reveals some surprising evidence about the history of cancer. It shows the disease hasn’t always been as widespread as it is today. In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that once upon a time almost nobody died of cancer.
So what’s going on? Why the sudden increase in the percentage of people who get this disease, when historically it was almost unknown?
Read on for the full story, because it could provide you with secrets to sidestepping this most-feared disease.
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Cancer only became “normal” in the last three hundred years.
By studying fossils, classical literature, and ancient Egyptian mummies, scientists have discovered that cancer was extremely rare prior to the 1700s.
Some medical professionals claim that even in a world free of cancer-causing substances, everyone would eventually get the disease if they lived long enough. But the evidence shows this wasn’t always true.2
It appears the cancer rate has been boosted by some recent developments in the history of our species. . .
Why cancer was almost unknown in ancient times
Professors Michael Zimmerman and Rosalie David recently conducted a study of ancient Egyptian mummies, researching hundreds of them by analyzing the tissue on a microscopic level.
In the end, they only found one solitary case of cancer… hardly enough to consider it “normal” in ancient society.
What’s more, the mummification process should have preserved tumors, if there were any, even better than it preserved healthy tissue.
The single case the two scientists found was of rectal cancer in the mummy of someone who lived between 1,600 and 1,800 years ago.
According to Mr. Zimmerman, a visiting professor at Manchester University, “In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases. The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization.”3
While relatively short lifespans throughout much of history could be blamed for cancer’s general absence, Professors Zimmerman and David believe this argument doesn’t hold much water.
They found other age-related issues in their research, such as brittle bones and hardened arteries. So why not cancer…?
Still, many scientists and doctors remain skeptical of their claims.
Dr. John Glaspy, an oncologist at UCLA, said, “Cancer is very rare in modern societies in humans under age 30. In ancient times, people rarely lived to be much older than that. So cancer was rare. The ‘sin’ of modern societies is having people live to be much older.”4
Is the truth in the bones?
Professors Zimmerman and David looked into the disease’s occurrence in fossils as well, but found only a few dozen cases in animals and early humans, most of which are disputed.
But because fossils and bones don’t preserve signs of cancer very well, they provide weaker evidence than do mummies and written records.
According to paleoanthropologist John Hawks, “To see cancers with the skeletal record, you really have to have a tumor that’s affecting bone.”5 Since evidence of cancer is difficult to see in bones, the number of cases found isn’t necessarily representative of how common (or uncommon) bone cancer was.
When cancer made its grand entrance
Early medical texts provide another possible source of information about how often people got cancer in bygone times. These publications contain little to no evidence of cancer until about two hundred years ago.
Ancient Egyptian writings reference diseases that could be cancer, but were more likely leprosy or other health problems.
The ancient Greeks were probably the first to identify cancer as a unique disease… but it’s unclear whether that was because it was becoming more common, or simply because their increased medical knowledge led them to study rare cases of the disease.
Surgery as a cancer treatment wasn’t described till the 17th century. And there are no reports of distinctive tumors until about 250 years ago. Scrotal cancer was found in chimney sweeps in 1775, snuff users were diagnosed with nasal cancer in 1761 (tobacco did not become available until the 1600s), and Hodgkin’s disease was first reported in 1832.
Is something modern causing cancer?
Looking back at cancer’s presence — or lack thereof — throughout history, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that something “modern” is causing it.
Professor David said, “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. So it has to be a man-made disease, pinned to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.
“The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease. We can make very clear statements on the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of data.”6
Scientists are discovering an ever-increasing number of factors contributing to cancer’s rise. And they’re distinctively modern issues, such as:
- Pesticides of increasing strength, and used more frequently
- Fake, packaged, and genetically modified foods
- Artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives etc.
- Sunscreen, makeup, and other toxin-laden personal care products
- Pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines
- Sedentary lifestyle – too much screen time and not enough movement
As you can see, many of these have arisen only in the last couple hundred years. And most have exploded in the past sixty or seventy years.
Infections can be good for you, sort of
There’s another possible explanation that’s somewhat more innocent. Prior to the current century most people died of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox or even measles and flu. Rather few died of what we call the diseases of aging – including not only cancer but also cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s.
Those who did survive all the ferocious infections must have had strong immune systems, which also would have served them well in avoiding cancer. On the other hand, the people with weak immunity who succumbed to infections would likewise have been those most likely to get cancer if they had lived to the age when it becomes a greater risk.
In our times, people with weak immune systems survive into old age and pass their weak genes on to children and grandchildren. We can be pretty confident the average adult of, say, 1750, had a sturdier immune system than the average person has today. And, of course, our modern bad habits batter our immune systems even further.
Whatever the reason, it looks like cancer was far more rare centuries ago than it is today, and only started becoming prevalent around the time of the Industrial Revolution.
As people moved en masse from the country to the city, diets became less wholesome and fresh, lifestyles became more sedentary, and pollution became a major problem…
All these factors probably contributed to rising cancer rates.
In addition, the recent increase in breast cancer rates is probably related to the fact that women today have children at a much later age, which scientists know to be a risk factor.
While more research is necessary before we can know the full story behind the evidence Professors David and Zimmerman found, here’s what we already know…
Making good lifestyle choices, consuming a healthy, organic, whole foods diet, exercising, and avoiding recognized carcinogens can greatly reduce your risk of cancer – and many other diseases, too.