An Ancient Fight

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Modern medicine has come a long way in its fight against cancer. Now, a new study shows how this fight actually began more than 4,000 years ago.

This battle’s ancient beginnings were uncovered by a research team recently after it studied the skulls of two individuals that lived in ancient Egypt, and found evidence that ancient healers had tried to treat the cancer.

“This finding is unique evidence of how ancient Egyptian medicine would have tried to deal with or explore cancer more than 4,000 years ago,” said study co-author Edgard Camarós.

Researchers arrived at their conclusions after using digital microscopes and micro-computer tomography scanning on the two skulls: The first, specimen 236, belonged to a man in his thirties who lived between 2687 and 2345 BCE, while the other, E270, belonged to a woman in her fifties who lived between 663 and 343 BCE.

They found signs of cancerous lesions on both.

At the same time, they also noticed cut marks around those lesions on 236’s skull, which they believe were caused by sharp metal instruments. The discovery suggested that the healers had attempted to remove the tumors, although it’s unclear if they did this while he was alive or after death.

Meanwhile, the E270 skull also had cancerous lesions but no signs of surgery. Instead, researchers discovered long-healed fractures, which they believe were from an earlier intervention for head injuries.

“We see that although Ancient Egyptians were able to deal with complex cranial fractures, cancer was still a medical knowledge frontier,” lead author Tatiana Tondini said in a statement.

In their paper, Tondini and her colleagues detailed the discovery as “a milestone in the history of medicine.”

The discoveries also push the understanding of and treatment for cancer further back in time.

Until now, the earliest known written observation of cancer was recorded on the Edwin Smith Papyrus: First discovered in the 19th century, the surgical treatise on trauma dates to between 3000 and 2500 BCE and is attributed to the renowned physician, architect and high priest Imhotep.

The ancient Egyptian document provides a series of medical cases, including observations of breast tumors and efforts to treat them.

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