4,200-Year-Old Egyptian Skeleton Shows Signs of Breast Cancer

Destructive lesion in vertebral body of the 7th thoracic vertebrae of the man from 1200 BC. Rectangle indicates area of new bone infill of the spongiosa. Arrows indicate new bone formation / 2014 Binder et al., PLOS ONE
Janet Fang 28 Mar 2015, 23:51

Researchers working in Egypt have uncovered the world’s oldest evidence for breast cancer so far. The 4,200-year-old skeleton belonged to an adult woman who lived at the end of the 6th Pharaonic Dynasty. 

"The study of her remains shows the typical destructive damage provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis," Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty says in a statement this week, according to Reuters. Her bones showed “an extraordinary deterioration.” According to researchers from the University of Jaen in Spain, the Egyptian woman was an aristocrat from Elephantine, the country's southernmost town. Her remains were unearthed in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa, west of Aswan in the south of Egypt, Reuters reports.

Cancer is one of today’s leading killers, but compared to other diseases, it’s almost completely absent in archaeological records. That’s one of the reasons why some people think cancer is a recent phenomenon -- the result of our modern lifestyles and the fact that we’re living longer. This new find, however, adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting how that’s simply not the case: Cancer is not rare in antiquity, people in the past simply didn’t live long enough to develop the types of malignant cancer that tends to show up in older age ranges.

In a PLOS ONE study published last year, a team led by Michaela Binder of Durham University described metastatic carcinoma in the remains of a young man between 25 and 35 years old from Ancient Nubia around 1200 BC. 

His skeleton (Sk244-8) was discovered in 2013 in a tomb at the northeastern cemetery of Amara West in what’s now northern Sudan. There were multiple lesions in his vertebrae, ribs, sternum, clavicles and scapulae (collar and shoulder bones), pelvis, and the heads of the humerus and femur (arm and leg bones). The pathological changes in the right femoral head is pictured directly above. 

The team explored pathologies ranging from multiple myeloma to fungal infections. After radiographic, microscopic, and scanning electron microscopic imaging of his lesions, the team suggested a diagnosis of metastatic carcinoma secondary to an unknown soft tissue cancer. Even in modern populations, primary bone cancer is rare, but it’s much more common to have tumor cells spread to bone tissue -- a preferred site for metastatic expansion.

Images: 2014 Binder et al., PLOS ONE

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