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Cancer Survivors in the Archaeological Record

Today is the American Cancer Society’s Survivors Day and it holds a special meaning for our members, as I am sure it does for many. The lives of all of our team members have been touched by cancer over the years and one of PRO’s co-founders is a cancer survivor, herself! It is for this reason that we became interested in contributing to the advancement of the field of paleo-oncology (the study of cancer in history and prehistory).

You may be asking yourself: How can the study of cancer in human remains be connected to a day meant to honor survivors? While it may seem counterintuitive, when archaeologists find evidence of cancer in the skeleton, they are uncovering the true story of a cancer survivor.

When conducting research, bioarchaeologists (archaeologists who specifically study skeletal and mummified remains of people from the past) and paleo-oncologists (researchers who study the history of cancer) must always consider an idea called the “osteological paradox”; the principle that in order to see evidence of diseases on the bone, the person with the disease will have had to live with the disease long enough for it to manifest in the bone. Sudden (acute) and severe diseases wouldn't have had an opportunity to leave skeletal evidence before taking the life of the victim. As such, in order for diseases such as cancer to show up in skeletons, these individuals must have lived with the disease for an extended period of time. It is for this and many other reasons that the number of individuals with cancer found in archaeolgical skeletons cannot be compared to modern cancer statistics. (We will dive into this interesting topic of paleo-epidemiology in future posts, so keep tuned into our blog!).

Although the understanding of cancer in the past may have been limited and they certainly did not have access to the many medical treatments available to patients today, they fought this terrible disease to the best of their ability. In fact, those individuals that retain skeletal evidence of cancer likely fought for a long period of time. As researchers, we honour their fight and the fight of survivors today by gathering information about cancer in the past while maintaining the personal integrity of these individuals, demonstrating respect to their remains and recognizing their extraordinary bravery.

Until more recent technological advancements, the vast majority of our current medical knowledge regarding cancer (and many diseases) had been gathered through autopsy results over the last few hundred years. Our continued investigation into cancer in historic and ancient human remains serves to expand our current data to include cases from thousands of years. Although there are limitations, recent scientific advances are giving the field of paleo-oncology a new possibilities for further explorations into the history, circumstances and development of cancer in the past, which may contribute to our overall understanding into how and why cancers manifest.

The importance of understanding the health profiles of people from the past, specifically the ancient survivors of cancer, is a vital aspect of PRO. Days like today, National Survivors Day, help to communicate the impact cancer in antiquity can have on cancer presently. So, today we celebrate all those who have fought and continue to fight. Fight on!

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