(CNN)Cancer is widespread today, but it doesn’t appear to have been in the ancient world. Why not?
Researchers are learning more about the history of cancer and how civilizations have treated it.
A study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer suggests that cancer has become a more common disease only recently, because of modern lifestyle.
Rosalie David, professor at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, and Michael Zimmerman, professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, explored the evidence of cancer in the fossil record of early humans, in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece. They argue that modern carcinogens — such as tobacco and pollution — may have contributed to the apparent rise in cancer in the past several hundred years.
Ancient Greeks knew that a mastectomy would help a patient with a lump in her breast, but they also recognized that cancer can recur and spread to other parts of the body.
“They recommended an unbelievable variety of potions, and plant extracts, and combinations to see if they couldn’t kill the cancer in other places,” Olson said. “None of those worked.”
It can be argued that since life expectancy was lower in the ancient world, most people didn’t live long enough to develop cancer, David said. But the lack of evidence of childhood bone cancer suggests that perhaps overall rates were lower as well, she said.
From about A.D. 500 to 1500 there was little advancement in understanding cancer, the analysis said. Then, in the 17th century, Wilhelm Fabricus described operations for breast and other cancers. Cancer rates appear to have increased since the Industrial Revolution, David said. In the past 200 years, reports of specific cancers such as scrotal cancer and Hodgkin’s disease have emerged.
Here’s an overview from the American Cancer Society of the history of cancer.