Cancer Was Common Even in Medieval Times, Study Suggests

Between 9 to 14% of adults in medieval Britain had cancer at the time of their death, long before today's environmental factors started playing a role.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Medieval spine; white arrows show cancer metastases. (Left) CT scan of a medieval skull; white arrow shows metastasis (Right)University of Cambridge

Cancer is commonly associated with tumor-inducing chemicals from industry and tobacco but a new study is revealing that it may have been quite common long before these elements entered our societies.

In a study called "After the Plague", which was published in the journal Cancer, a team led by the University of Cambridge analyzed 143 skeletons from six medieval cemeteries in and around the city of Cambridge, U.K., dating from the 6th to the 16th century.

Using CT scans, they found that between 9 to 14 percent of adults in medieval Britain had the disease at the time of their death, which is 10 times higher than previous estimates, which had put cancer rates at less than one percent. 

"Until now it was thought that the most significant causes of ill health in medieval people were infectious diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague, along with malnutrition and injuries due to accidents or warfare," study co-author and After the Plague researcher Dr. Jenna Dittmar said.

“We now have to add cancer as one of the major classes of disease that afflicted medieval people,” Dittmar added.

Tracing cancer back in history

This may not come as a big surprise to some since signs of cancer have been found all the way back to ancient Egypt. The devastating disease has been spotted in human mummies and ancient manuscripts.

"Our oldest description of cancer (although the word cancer was not used) was discovered in Egypt and dates back to about 3000 BC. It’s called the Edwin Smith Papyrus and is a copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. It describes eight cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were removed by cauterization with a tool called the fire drill," reads a posting on

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The textbook also added that there is no treatment for the affliction.

What may comes as a surprise, however, is how common cancer indeed was during medieval times. Researchers have largely assumed that cancer is a more common recent phenomenon dating back to the 18th century which worsened as the human lifespan lengthened.

However, this new study is revealing that cancer may have been commonplace throughout history. The scientists also added that diagnosing cancer in those who had been dead a long time was difficult and that there were too few samples to work with due to the limited geographic range.  

"We need further studies using CT scanning of apparently normal skeletons in different regions and time periods to see how common cancer was in key civilizations of the past," lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell said.

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