It’s a fairly hard hitting fact, but on average half of us will get cancer at some point in our lives.
To understand how to best tackle this astonishingly pervasive disease, we need to understand where it came from. We might think of cancer as being a relatively modern disease – after all, smoking is the cause of a third of all cancers today – but the history of it goes back much further then you may realize. Hundreds of millions of years, in fact.
Cancer is by no means a new disease. We even have evidence of dinosaurs being afflicted by tumors. One study looked at over 10,000 X-rays of fossilized dinosaur vertebrae from more than 700 different museum specimens. These remains spanned a massive array of species, from the plant-eating stegosaurs to the ferocious tyrannosaurs.
They found evidence of 29 tumors in the fossilized bones of these long extinct beasts. But there was something else even more curious. All of the bones found to contain tumors came from hadrosaurs, also known as the duck-billed dinosaurs, dating to the Cretaceous period around 70 million years ago. Why these dinosaurs seemed to be particularly susceptible is not really understood, and according to the researchers might never be.
Only relatively recently did another group of researchers find a tumor in the fossil of a titanosaur, which is the first evidence to show that cancer was present in a dinosaur that was not a hadrosaur.
Even when it comes to our own lineage the evidence of cancer goes back an impressive distance. The earliest known hominin found to have the disease is a nearly 2-million-year-old benign tumor in the vertebrae of an Australopithecus sediba child. At this point, our ancestors still looked pretty ape-like though probably had a mosaic of features somewhere in between apes and humans.
When it comes to evidence of the first ever malignant tumor in our ancestors, it isn’t that far behind. A toe bone dating to roughly 1.7 million years old, found in South Africa and belonging to an as yet unidentified species of hominin has been diagnosed using its morphology as an osteosarcoma. While all that is known about the individual is the cancerous toe bone, the researchers can be certain that it would have made walking or running extremely painful.