This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Ancients Knew About Cancer Even if They Couldn't Cure It

For the most part you have to live long enough to die from cancer, and for most of human history people died at a young age from infectious diseases and so didn't live to die from cancer. But that doesn't mean that cancer didn't exist. A new paper by researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK and Villanova University in the US reviews the evidence of what the ancients knew about cancer. Only one mummy out of hundreds examined showed any sign of cancer (and it was colorectal cancer), but Egyptian writings suggest that they knew about the disease:
The ancient Egyptians wrote about many magical spells they used to treat cancer-like illnesses, a few of which are described in papyri. Here's one particularly gruesome remedy for what may have been cancer of the uterus: Break up a stone in water, leave it overnight, and then pour it into the vagina. Another treatment described was fumigation: The patient would sit over something that was burning. 
I suspect that the patient died of the treatment, if not the disease, but that is a common story in the history of medicine. The Greeks, coming after and presumably building on the knowledge of the Egyptians, knew a bit more:

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."
Our own treatments for cancer will likely seem primitive when compared to future methods. These are the things that will push life expectancy closer and closer to the known human lifespan.

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