Is Breast Cancer a Modern Disease? The Archaeologists Answer.

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As time goes on, more and more people are being diagnosed with breast cancer. But is that because people are actually more likely to get breast cancer than ever before? Or is it simply due to better diagnostic techniques and a larger overall population? Was breast cancer around in ancient times, or is it a modern disease we’ve created through pollution and chemically-altered food sources?

The short answer is that all of these things are somewhat correct. Breast cancer is not a modern disease, and our perception of there being “more” cases now does have a lot to do with changes in diagnostic tools, research data, and a larger population. It also likely has something to do with the rising life expectancy over time.

However, it is possible that breast cancer rates are rising due to other factors, such as waiting longer before having children and not breastfeeding for as long, both of which increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

We have reason to believe that breast cancer has probably been around as long as there have been human beings. The earliest known written record of breast cancer is a 3600-year-old scroll from Egypt called the Edwin Smith Papyrus. Some of the 48 cases in that history may be from as early as 3,000 B.C., over 5,000 years ago.

But is there scientific proof that breast cancer was around even longer than people were writing about it? Sort of. A group of archaeologists believe they have found the oldest evidence of breast cancer in the skeleton of a 4200-year-old Egyptian woman who is believed to have lived on the Nile island of Elephantine during Egypt’s 6th Dynasty. According to Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, the bones show evidence of “the typical destructive damages provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis in the bones.”

Similar cases of potential breast cancer in skeletons and mummies, although slightly more recent (2,500 and 3,000 years old, respectively), have been discovered in Siberia and the Sudan.

There were, of course, no modern technologies to help them diagnose the disease back then, but it’s likely that the cases became so severe without proper treatment that the symptoms soon became outwardly visible.

Ancient Greeks and Medieval Europeans are also known to have struggled with breast cancer, which they believed was caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids and a host of other sources, most of which had nothing to do with breast cancer. Sadly, some people still mistakenly believe that things such as overly tight clothing and physical injury to the breast can cause cancer. Although we still do not have very definitive answers about what does cause breast cancer, these myths have been proven false.

Ancient surgeons understood the need to remove the diseased tissue after diagnosing a case of cancer, but they had no tools to view the tumor prior to making the incision or to determine whether they’d removed it all. Their patients also went without anesthesia, making surgery all the more difficult for both patient and surgeon.

It didn’t take long, of course, for people to realize that these types of surgeries had low success rates, and so various other treatments—ranging from prayer to castor oil, opium to arsenic—became the norm. The 2500-year-old Siberian “ice princess” is even believed to have used medical marijuana to fight the disease. It was generally accepted, however, that there was no effective treatment for the disease.


Our new knowledge of ancient breast cancer and the way it was treated may be a good reminder that we’re not so bad off today. While the suffering of present-day breast cancer patients should not be discounted, modern technologies are just a few more blessings to count as you try to stay positive throughout your treatment.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?