Not too long ago a story about a study examining mummies for the prevalence of cancer caused a flurry of articles in the media claiming that cancer is a man-made disease. The researchers claim that cancer was very rare in ancient Egypt compared to modern times.

In their press release about the study the author states

“In industrialised 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, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”

Are those claims valid? What evidence is there about the environmental causes of cancer? I'm not just asking about this specific study, but also about other studies showing how important environmental factors are in the incidence of cancer.

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    I’m astonished that the University would issue such a seriously flawed press release. This considerably calls into question the integrity of the study in the first place. Whether or not the study has some validity, the press release is just bad. Commented Mar 21, 2011 at 19:58
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    Wow – I’m just noticing that MSNBC is basically saying the same thing as I, and even sourcing their claims (well, some of them). They really did their homework. Commented Mar 21, 2011 at 20:00
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    Konrad, are you saying that your knowledge of cancer is better than the Manchester University researchers? Maybe you should cite the papers you have published on the subject. Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 15:52
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    @DJClayworth Please focus on the arguments here, not on the users. There is often a big difference between the peer-reviewed paper and the press-release about it, you don't need extensive credentials to poke holes into exaggerated press releases, those are unfortunately far too common.
    – Mad Scientist
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 21:51
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    @DJClayworth I did not publish any studies on the topic, nor do I need to. Do I need to publish studies to ridicule a researcher who claims that π = 3? No. The claim that “[t]here is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer” is just as ridiculously wrong. See the answers for examples. Furthermore, if I were the author of a study that was praised by such a press release, I would mount the barricades. In the best case, this is a gross misinterpretation of the study. I the worst case, it’s an accurate representation. Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 0:12

7 Answers 7


I know of no studies but it is well-known that

  1. life expectancy has increased drastically since ancient Egypt and that
  2. cancer prevalence increases with age.

About the first point, life expectancy in ancient Egypt was around 25 years, and even in the middle ages no more than 30 years. Compare that to today’s 67 years. Granted, once you take infant mortality out of the equation life expectancy grows – but it still was much less than today, and more importantly, it was often less than 50 years.

The second point is due to a number of factors but it all boils down to cell aging and accumulating effects of detriment mutations. There are occurrences of cancer in young people and even in children, but mostly, it is “a disease found in people over the age of 50”: according to SEER data, just 95 people below 50 get cancer for 1449 incidences above 50.

Combined, it isn’t surprising to see that cancer is much more common now than it was then. Superficially, no further reasons are needed to explain this phenomenon.

Furthermore, animals (e.g. chimpanzees) and even plants can get cancer, too – so this isn’t a problem that is partial to humans (though that doesn’t preclude new environmental causes).

Apart from that, the quote is complete nonsense:

There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer

Well … no. There are a lot of things in the natural environment that can and do cause cancers. The most glaring point is natural sources of high radiation, such as uranium ore and of course the sun. But more sources exist, such as viruses, infectious diseases and diet.

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    Also, important to consider the diagnose bias. I'm quite sure nobody in ancient egypt knew what a cancer was and if someone died from it, they would have just assumed he was cursed or something. Commented Mar 21, 2011 at 20:54
  • @Stefano Diagnose bias was certainly present but people back then did know of cancer – see Ophir’s answer. Commented Mar 21, 2011 at 21:30
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    While I largely agree with your conclusions, life expectancy was so low because infant mortality was so high. If somebody lived to be 5 years old, they'd probably live to be at least 40 or 50.
    – Gabe
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 7:03
  • @Gabe Valid point. However, the Wikipedia section that I linked to also includes the (well-sourced) remark that “occurrence of older age became more common late in human evolution”. Furthermore, even taking child mortality into account one arrives at the same conclusion. For example, life expectancy increased drastically after the age of 21, at which point the person was already a full-grown adult. “infant” mortality is a bit misleading in this regard since it implies that children exclusively died shortly after birth. Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 9:37
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    I read the same article: "a Roman Life Expectancy table at the University of Texas shows that at birth the life expectancy was 25 but if one lived to the age of 5 one's life expectancy jumped to 48."
    – Gabe
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 12:05

Before I start, I always remind people that cancer is NOT one specific illness with one specific cause or treatment. In fact, most people would be amazed at how many types of cancer there are.

One of the first depictions of cancer in historical medical literature dates back to about 1600 BC, from what's known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus. For a historical overview, the Journal of Surgical Oncology has the paper Ancient Greek and Greco–Roman Methods in Modern Surgical Treatment of Cancer.

The name "cancer" was attached to various malignancies by Hippocrates, from whom we have documented cases from ancient Greece. So, the first answer is simple: No, cancer is not a modern, man-made disease.

As for the quote posted, I would like to point out a simple flaw in what seems to be the central statement of this argument: "There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer". This is easily falsifiable. I think most rational people would agree that there are few things more natural than SUNLIGHT. Of course, there is a fairly well-documented association between sun exposure and melanoma. There are also known viral causes of cancer, the most well known being HPV. While we may not like to think of a virus as a pleasant thing, it is in fact perfectly all-natural.

Any sufficient analysis of cancer rates is going to be much too complex for a simple post, but I can suggest some places to begin research, if one is so inclined.

For some data as to current trends; you can find a table of death rates for males and females between 1930-2006. There is also a nicely put together table at Cancer.org for cancer probabilities for 2004-2006 broken down by age, sex, and organ.

The NCI offers a searchable database of available statistics from the SEER which should also provide a good place to start looking if one is curious.

Remember that cancer is a hot-button issue in the media, and what is reported in the general press may not accurately reflect the current state of the peer-reviewed legitimate research. Search out the citations if you can and see for yourself.

Also keep in mind that studying prevalence and incidence rates for cancer is very time-consuming and labor-intensive. One must take into consideration many factors in order to properly interpret the data. Some confounding factors are:

  • Increased diagnostic capabilities which allow modern medicine to find and diagnose more cancers.

  • Increased lifespan which allows for more time to develop cancer

  • Immunosuppressive conditions such as HIV which make patients more susceptible to cancers.

  • Better survival rates for cancers which increase the number of cases in the general population.

This is obviously not a complete answer, but I hope it was helpful as a place to begin.

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    Not only there are many types of cancer, but the "same type" (e.g. breast cancer) can also derive from different causes and, at the end, be classified into different pathologies.
    – nico
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 10:34

From The History of Cancer

Oldest descriptions of cancer Human beings have had cancer throughout recorded history. So it is no surprise that from the dawn of history people have written about cancer. Some of the earliest evidence of cancer is found among fossilized bone tumors, human mummies in ancient Egypt, and ancient manuscripts. Bone remains of mummies have revealed growths suggestive of the bone cancer, osteosarcoma. Bony skull destruction as seen in cancer of the head and neck has been found, too.

Our oldest description of cancer (although the word cancer was not used) was discovered in Egypt and dates back to about 1600 B.C. It is called the Edwin Smith Papyrus, and is a copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. It describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were treated by cauterization, with a tool called the fire drill. The writing says about the disease, "There is no treatment."

As you can see, cancer is not a modern disease.


There are a number of environmental factors which can influence cancer in man.

Bracken ferns (eaten in the US, Canada and Japaan as Fiddlehead ferns) contains the compound ptaquiloside (PTQ). PTQ is a known carcinogen - and it's responsible for some forms of cancer (gastric) in both animals and humans. Obviously those at greatest risk are those living in areas with a large Bracken fern population, as it does leach to the groundwater and does pass into the milk of cows (which could be a potential exposure route to other populations).

It's also been suggested that PTQ can, in conjunction with other viruses (HPV) be a contributing factor to squamous cell carcinomas in cattle and possibly in humans.

So no, cancer is not a 'man made' disease - there are a number of natural sources of cancer in the environment.

  • Toxic mold contains aflatoxins which are among the most carcinogenic agents known. Commented Aug 1, 2013 at 7:21

The American Cancer Society has a long list of known and probable human carcinogens. Among that long list are the following naturally occurring agents (exposure methods are also on the linked site):

  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Ethanol in alcoholic beverages
  • Helicobacter pylori (infection with)
  • Hepatitis B virus (chronic infection with)
  • Hepatitis C virus (chronic infection with)
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 66 (Note: The HPV types that have been classified as carcinogenic to humans can differ by an order of magnitude in risk for cervical cancer)
  • Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-1)
  • Neutrons
  • Radon
  • Schistosoma haematobium (flatworm; infection with)
  • Solar radiation
  • Aflatoxins (naturally occurring mixtures of)
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Areca nut, Betel nut
  • Coal-tar pitches
  • Coal-tars
  • Mineral oils, untreated and mildly treated
  • Plants containing aristolochic acid
  • Shale-oils
  • Soots
  • Tobacco, smokeless
  • Wood dust

This is only a partial list of the naturally occurring agents and a smaller subset of all known carcinogens.

It can be readily shown that cancers can be caused by natural processes. @Konrad Rudolph has already described that cancer is strongly associated with age--the longer you live, the more likely you are to be exposed to a carcinogen.

Now the caveat: Although there are many naturally occurring carcinogens, there are many more additional carcinogens that exist in sufficient quantities to cause cancer only because of human industrial development. While it is incorrect to say that cancer is a man-made disease, you could claim that human industry has increased the risk-of-exposure to carcinogens, thus advancing the spread, or prevalence, of cancer. To be fair, such a claim should come with evidence showing that the particular carcinogen has caused cancer and that the carcinogen could not exist unless humans created or refined it.

[The last paragraph was edited to hopefully clear up misinterpretations of the more terse version that was originally submitted.]


Here are the conclusions from the paper (quoted in full):

It is hoped that research in palaeopathology will contribute to the elucidation of the pathogenesis of cancer. The publication of the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy is one step along the way. Despite the fact that other explanations, such as inadequate techniques of disease diagnosis, cannot be ruled out, the rarity of malignancies in antiquity is strongly suggested by the available palaeopathological and literary evidence. This might be related to the prevalence of carcinogens in modern societies.

As you can see, the version that got past peer review is full of hedges ("it might be related to", "strongly suggested", "one step along the way"). The press release is just that, a press release, made to get into the news. The science is much murkier.


One thing is certain. In the book "Vaccines, are they really safe and effective?" page 20-21 Says that in 1959 , Bernice Eddy discovered that polio vaccines being administered throughout the world contained an infectious agent capable of causing cancer. SV-40 is what is was. Here is how it works 1. Monkey kidneys are used to develop polio vaccines 2. SV-40 , a cancer causing virus , thrived in monkey kidneys. 3. Polio vaccines were contaminated 4. Millions of people in the USA and throughout the world were infected 5. Cancer rates have increased. SV-40 is found in the brain tumors, bone cancers, lung cancers and leukemia.

Source: National Morbidity Reports taken from the U.S. Public Health surveillance reports. Lancet ( April 18, 1950) pp. 659-63.

Vaccines are one of many sources of cancer. War on cancer is lost, Nixon declared the war on cancer and there is no end in site.

Oh, and we live longer due to 2 proven facts. 1. HVAC (Heating especially ) 2. Modern septic systems

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    a book with an activist agenda, quoting activist groups as its sources, isn't a reliable source of information.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 5:59
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    -1 for use of sensationalist agenda in lieu of a properly sourced, and unbiased response.
    – Darwy
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 13:27
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    –1: SV40 does not cause cancer in humans. (1), (2) Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 16:15
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    With enough money to study and do damage control you will certainly find studies they are to your liking. It absolutely does cause cancer. "While the United States government continues to evaluate whether or not SV40 represents a public health threat and whether SV40 is a human carcinogen, several scientists at the NCI concluded that SV40 contributed to the formation of mesotheliomas.[79] In fact, the federal government has licensed technology to target SV40 in the treatment of human mesotheliomas.[80]" sv40foundation.org/CPV-link.html Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 18:06
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    SV-40 was removed from all polio vaccines in the US by 1963, and a Danish study found no link between SV-40 and cancer rates in Denmark. cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/sv40
    – Darwy
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 19:22

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