Take Charge

Did Cancer Exist 3,000 Years Ago?

July 16, 2018

egyptian1_Web.jpg Photo Courtesy: El Molto, Department of Anthropology, The University of Western Ontario

By Sara Bondell

When you think of Ancient Egypt, pyramids, pharaohs and hieroglyphics come to mind.

But what about cancer?

Archeologists have uncovered six cases of cancer while studying the bodies of ancient Egyptians buried between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago. The bodies include a toddler with leukemia, a mummified man in his 50s with rectal cancer and individuals with cancer possibly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

“Cancer and its underlying causes have existed for thousands of years,” said Moffitt cancer epidemiologist Dr. Shelley Tworoger.

In a study analyzing the six cancer cases, researchers say HPV evolved in Africa long before Homo sapiens emerged and that while they were not able to genetically test the mummies to see if they had HPV, other studies confirm it did exist in the ancient world.

“That cancer was identified in mummies from childhood to early adult to older adults is informative for us today when considering that we now have more tools than ever to prevent cancer. For example, the HPV vaccine can prevent HPV-related cancers that affect young adults,” Tworoger says. “We also know that our lifestyle plays an important role in reducing risk.”

Researchers say they found no indication ancient Egyptians had any specific treatment for cancer.