For some curious reason, the vast majority of tumors identified in dinosaur bones are found in hadrosaurs. Filippo onez Vanzo/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 27 May 2018, 12:40

All of this evidence very clearly shows that cancer is not a modern disease, as some like to suggest, or that it is even limited to humans. We know many species living today develop cancer, and the fossil record clearly suggests that many long extinct animals also got the disease, too.

Yet while today cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide, it is not as common as you might expect in antiquity.

This is mainly to do with the fact that people simply did not live long enough for the disease to manifest itself, and people were most probably dying first of other diseases far less common in the modern world, but also because any cancerous of soft tissue won’t have survived.

The toe bone belongs to an as yet unknown species of hominin. 

The earliest written mention of cancer is thought to be in Ancient Egyptian texts dating to at least 1600 BCE and potentially as old as 2500 BCE, with one even including how to remove a breast tumor by cauterization. Throughout antiquity, cancer was noted and described, with the word being coined by Hippocrates, who referred to tumors as “karkinos”, from the Greek word for crab.

As the oncologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and author of the book The Emperor of All Maladies, wrote: “Civilization did not cause cancer, but by extending human lifespans, civilization unveiled it.”

Unfortunately, the dark conclusion seems to be that cancer is likely an inevitability as soon as an organism becomes multicellular. Evolution relies on the fact that the DNA in your cells mutate, creating variation within a population on which natural selection can work. It is this same system that allows cancer to arise, as cells mutate and break free of the checks and controls that normally prevent them from proliferating.

This might sound like there is nothing we can do to prevent it, but that is not really true. When we talk about “cancer” we are effectively referring to hundreds of different diseases. This means that talking about a cure for “cancer” is misleading, and while there are clear difficulties in treating what is, in effect, our own body cells going rogue, we are making some striking advances.

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