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Science and Technology

Digging into the global history of cancer

Kathryn Hunt
How harnessing the past can contribute to the future of cancer research

On February 8th, 2010 I hobbled across the Pacific Lutheran University campus, bald and using a cane. It was my first day back to college after vigorous chemotherapy and a couple surgeries.

I was 22 years old, diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer and, not surprisingly, hyper-conscious about the second glances I received from other students and staff. Their masked reactions showed confusion, fear, sympathy and pity.

From personal life to human history

In my life, I’ve had the privilege of following my wildest dreams. I’ve studied Egyptology in Cairo and excavated in the Nile Delta. Thanks to my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Donald Ryan, I’ve examined skeletons while ten metres deep in the limestone tombs of the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. I’ve helped to uncover an Early Bronze Age city in Israel and have taught students to properly excavate an ancient necropolis in Transylvania.

Many cancer survivors can attest to the fact that the disease changes your perspective on life. But cancer didn’t just transform how I viewed mortality, empathy, and humanity – it also drew me into exploring health in human history through an archeological lens.

So what happened next as I hobbled across campus is a reflection of the antisocial academic I’d become. Instead of feeling sensitive or embarrassed, I wondered: “How did ancient Egyptians react to cancer?” And then: “Why haven’t I heard anything about cancer in ancient times?”

I’ve spent a lot of time since then searching for answers to the first question and working on long-term solutions to fix the second.

Cancer in antiquity

The impressive advancement of modern cancer research has been based on limited knowledge of cancer, formed over the last 100 years or so. Our understanding of how cancer functions, reacts and evolves is full of gaps, perhaps because we’ve been restricting clinical studies to the lab rather than including interdisciplinary perspectives such as archeological field research. In doing so, we’ve been missing vital clues in human culture and history.

The field dedicated to the study of cancer in antiquity, known as “paleo-oncology,” is a small one, made up of a few scholars that have given some of their limited time to select case studies. But there’s a great deal of work still to be done. Imagine if we had data documenting the presence of cancer over thousands, maybe even millions, of years. It could reveal why and how cancer manifests in some people and not others. It could tell us what biological, cultural and environmental factors influence cancer prevalence and frequency. It might even help with the prevention of certain cancers in the future.

It’s for that reason that in 2012, following my own diagnosis of cancer, a few colleagues and I formed an open, collaborative, and educational scientific research group called the Paleo-oncology Research Organization (PRO), where archaeologists, historians, clinical oncologists, and other researchers can come together and pool their intellect and resources. PRO is now gathering funding to facilitate research, effectively “digging” into the global history of one of the most prevalent diseases today.

With the support of PRO and many other scholars, I’ve collected a body of ancient literary references to cancer, developed in-depth perspectives into the limitations, methodological considerations and future trajectory of the field of paleo-oncology, and assembled a database of over 230 skeletons with evidence of cancer. This database provides the foundation for what is, and will grow to be, a massive open-study of the global history of cancer, which will be available to view on the Paleo-oncology Research Organisation website within the year. We’ve got some exciting projects on the horizon, most recent of which is co-founder Jennifer Willoughby’s doctoral research into the radiological diagnostic characteristics of cancer in mummies.

The media appears to be catching up: attention towards the antiquity of cancer is increasing in the public eye, a welcome change to a proposal five years ago that claimed cancer is a man made disease. We plan on dispelling the myth of cancer as a purely modern phenomenon, a notion that stands in the way of progress – and the secrets we hope to uncover in cancer’s past.

The Paleo-oncology Research Organization is currently looking for funding on upcoming projects. Contact Kathryn at info@cancerantiquity.org

Kathryn Hunt is an archaeologist and physical anthropologist. She’s also a member of the Libertine100; read her profile herecancerantiquity.org; @CancerAntiquity

Our understanding of how cancer functions, reacts and evolves is full of gaps

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