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Guest Blog: Traveling back in time:A Nurse and Survivor’s View of Ancient Cancer Care

I am a Registered Nurse who shifted gears late in life to study bioarcheology. I had experienced the highs of emergency room trauma and cardiac intervention for nearly twenty six years. I transitioned into osteology, paleopathology, and forensic anthropology, with ease. I was sure I was heading for graduate school with the positivity of, “who wouldn’t accept a Registered Nurse into their anthropology program?” My life was on track.

So with that experience, I prepared myself for archaeological field schools in Poland July 2014 and Italy July 2015. Then on December 26, 2013, my world came crashing down. I went into the hospital for what was an emergency appendectomy and came out diagnosed with colon cancer stage 3. I knew that medicine had come a long ways. Regardless in the back of my mind any cancer had the probability of being a death sentence. As a result, I could not bring myself to study human remains, especially those affected by cancer. One day, as I studied a skull affected by meningioma, I felt as though I was viewing my own mortality, fear, and pain. Anger was not far behind.

Having cancer and beginning chemotherapy, I was no longer able to work as a Nurse, let alone function mentally (chemo brain). Cancer and healthcare costs broke me financially. Unable to pay for the archaeological field trips, I now had to concentrate on paying medical bills. Graduate school was just

As a member of the healthcare profession and medical research community, I fell into the category of “knowing too much.” We need control in our profession, however, that control is taken away with a cancer diagnosis. That did not stop me from Googling colon cancer survival statistics where my life expectancy with chemotherapy was 65% in five years.

As I sat waiting to meet my Oncologist for the first time, I wondered what a cancer care may have been like in ancient times. (My Oncologist being over booked, I had plenty of time to mentally travel back in time).

The Greeks and the Egyptians had great respect for one another’s knowledge of medicine. I would have been comfortable with either one caring for me. However, in what is now known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus, it does state that there is no cure for cancer. So now I’m headed off to the Greeks for a second opinion. In a long line of distinguished Greek Physicians, Hippocrates would be my first choice. I don’t need to hear from Galen that my cancer is a result of menopause and melancholy; hearing that at 58 years of age, I would have a hot flash with his name on it; bad news for Galen. As a Nurse, I would challenge Hippocrates and all his specialists to no end. We Nurses do that; we are difficult Patients. I want results, though I am not adverse to spiritual aid which comes in the form of the healing God, Asclepius. Egyptian amulets and incantations are the original placebos of medicine. I will bypass the clinical trial on magic spells.

I wonder if Hippocrates would have held my hand in reassuring me that I will be well cared for; after all he is the all powerful father of modern medicine. He is probably over-booked as well and does not have time. He would of course explain in detail how my cancer was a result of the inflammatory process between bile, blood, and phlegm. If I am what I eat, I am doomed. I regret the nachos, cokes, and cheetos. He would then shift his talk to life expectancy. My chances are not that great in ancient times. Though my great grandparents on both sides of my family pickled themselves with alcohol, they all lived to 100 years of age. Perhaps drinking all that beer in my youth and bourbon in my midlife is a plus. Were these crazy thoughts going through ancient peoples minds too?

Considering that I received the mother of all chemo’s “Oxaliplatin” and Fluorouracil (5-FU), Hippocrates’ concoction of arsenic, sulfur, and ricin, would not be all that farfetched. I find the pharmaceutical term “FU” very symbolic of my feelings during chemo; I am sure ancient people did too. I walk out of Hippocrates office hating him, his family, and his dog. Why me? It is a question as old as dirt.

I cannot bypass the ever present financial burden it would cost for these ancient “state of the art” medicines. If there was a price to pay, it was a pretty hefty one. With a livelihood affected by disabling disease, chances are there was no money coming in. I would have to resort to begging on the street. Not all that different than begging the creditors and health insurance plans for one more day to pay. Had I lived in ancient Rome, my low income would have only provided me again with spiritual therapy. If that includes going to confessional, I am in big trouble.

Let us not forget the stigma of cancer in ancient and modern times. Tumors were the result of human curses. Disfigurement was certainly a sentence of physical and verbal abuse. Living in ancient times would have been fraught with fear for cancer patients. They were isolated and considered contagious. Perhaps the analogy came about because of leprosy and elephantiasis being tumor like.

The stigma continues today. How does one explain to an employer a cancer diagnosis and that therapy will affect work time and productivity? No promotions for this patient any time soon. How many times have we as cancer patients had to wear masks in public because our absolute neutrophil count was low? How many of us had heard the whispers behind our back, as though we stepped off a martian ship? The disfigurement of breast or oral surgery due to cancer is enough for a patient to isolate themselves from the world and even family.

There is no doubt that ancient people also had their fears. Who would care for their families, provide food and protection? If they had no money, did they have to barter for medical care? How long before they succumbed to the disease without treatment? There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they suffered horrifically. I have seen the devastating effects of cancer firsthand as a Nurse and family caregiver.

So as I was called in to meet my Oncologist, my thoughts reverted back to the present. It was time to collect my questions regarding everything from longevity statistics to side effects, not to mention, gearing to challenge the expert. What we experience today, ancient people did too.

Feelings are subjective and have no place in the scientific research. Yet, that should not stop us from pausing and reflecting that the human remains we study were once living and breathing, emotionally and physically affected by disease, disability, and fear for the future. It has certainly affected how I study human remains today. I no longer have the protective wall shielding me from the horrors of disease and death. That wall came down when I became the Patient.

I slowly returned to bioarchaeology on my terms. I now have a passion to study paleo-oncology. Why not? I am a first-hand expert. I felt a need to educate future archaeology students about cancer in antiquity and its effects on today’s research. I doubt if field school or graduate school are in the cards. Although I have recovered from cancer, my finances have not. That’s the story for many cancer survivors, present and ancient.

I still remain the scientific bioarchaeology student and Nurse. But my thoughts today after surviving cancer and continued study of human remains never fail to return me to the mortality and past fears of those who lived in ancient times. I owe them that respect and empathy.

Adriana E. Tamayo, RN, BSN, CCRN (Alumnus), Bioarchaeology Student


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