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Cancer: A "modern, man-made disease"?
October 15, 2010 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Science meets the news cycle, part n: Researchers look at cancer rates in the ancient world and conclude that cancer is "a modern, man-made disease." The story makes headlines in the UK (and pops up on the political fringe). Meanwhile, New Scientist and others debunk the claim. Will that critical perspective get as much coverage as the original story?

The original review article was published in Nature Reviews Cancer; you need to login to read it.
posted by twirlip (43 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Old age is also a disease of the modern world, then.
posted by Mister_A at 11:57 AM on October 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


Excessive sunlight causes skin cancer. I think the sun has been around for quite some time.

Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies

You know, I'm terrible at math, but there's a bit of a ratio here:

(Number of Egyptian mummies) * (cancer rate) - (number of Egyptians mummies that died at a young-ish age, before cancer took hold) : (hojillion dead Egyptians we know nothing about)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:00 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The answer to your question is 'no'--the critical perspective will not get as much coverage as the original, easily debunkable theory. Which is great for me, because I am planning on releasing a line of water called Gene Water*, which will have ACTUAL DNA sequences in the water to protect people from the sea of carcinogens drowning them in these modern times.


*Patent pending--do NOT steal this
posted by reformedjerk at 12:06 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hey you don't sound too reformed to me, man.
posted by Mister_A at 12:09 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The original article is a review of incidence of cancer that people have found in historical anthropological research. I found it interesting. However, the conclusion that modern society causes cancer has very little basis. This claim isn't even made very strongly in the original article, it's only in the press releases and interviews with the author that this claim comes out.
posted by demiurge at 12:11 PM on October 15, 2010


Excessive sunlight causes skin cancer.

Not noticeably when the average person dies a relatively young death, as you sort of pointed out.

Besides, they're not saying it NEVER happened, they're just saying it wasn't running rampant like it is now.

I have no difficulty believing that the world we've made for ourselves makes us physically sick. I think there is a great harm in passing off cancer as a genetic malady when actually some people are probably just more genetically predisposed to be sensitive to the myriad environmental factors which (surprise! [Not really]) are causing cancer.
posted by hermitosis at 12:18 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


How Science Reporting Works
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 12:19 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


demiurge, thank you, something about how this was being framed sounded .. dumb. Now we know, bad science reporting strikes again.
posted by stbalbach at 12:19 PM on October 15, 2010


"Gene Water" is a totally sweet idea man, I think I'm going to steal it.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:20 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Excessive sunlight causes skin cancer. I think the sun has been around for quite some time.

Is sunlight a cause or a catalyst? With the increasingly large number of esoteric chemicals we're exposed to in modern times, I'd be surprised if there wasn't some truth to this.
posted by rocket88 at 12:20 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Number of Egyptian mummies) * (cancer rate) - (number of Egyptians mummies that died at a young-ish age, before cancer took hold) : (hojillion dead Egyptians we know nothing about)

And include an estimate of the number of Egyptians who weren't mumified, and the hojillion becomes a jajillion* dead Egyptians we know nothing about.

*Jajillion clearly being more than hojillion, based on a alphanumeric scaling sequence, J coming after H in the alphabet and all.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:21 PM on October 15, 2010


Orange Pamplemousse: How Science Reporting Works

See also: Science News Cycle
posted by filthy light thief at 12:23 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There were fewer people who lived in relative geographic isolation, who had short lifespans. A more well-established theory is that certain viruses and infections cause a significant number of cancers. People who don't travel much and don't live very long are not good vectors for this kind of disease, which would be consistent with observing a lower incidence rate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:23 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mister_A: “Old age is also a disease of the modern world, then.”

Of course it is. Look at my grandmother – she lived through WWI, WWII, the 60s, and all kinds of crap. But then, suddenly, we got a bit into the 21st century, and she just dropped dead. Modernity killed her, I tell you!
posted by koeselitz at 12:25 PM on October 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


See? koeselitz proves irrefutably that thing I said.
posted by Mister_A at 12:27 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Professor Rosalie David may:

a) be totally disingenuous, manipulating the press for his own self aggrandizement
b) have been totally misquoted by an anxious or incompetent reporter
c) seriously fail to understand science, medicine, history, and statistics

When I hear reports that more and more people die of X disease every year, my inner economist rejoices. Yay! Fewer people are dying from other diseases, accidents, warfare, and famine! That's progress.

The ultimate statistic: Given the status quo, 100.00000000000000% of all human beings born will die. Just pick a cause.

Ironically, perhaps famine and warfare will grow to be the two largest single causes of mortality as we eliminate every other cause. Hurray for the future! It's going to really, really suck for a lot of human beings.
posted by Xoebe at 12:31 PM on October 15, 2010


You know, you're allowed to click the links on this site. You might learn something! Like that the investigators, not being complete morons, specifically looked for cancers which (in modern populations) strike primarily younger people, to attempt to mitigate the effect of changes in lifespan. They also looked at the incidence of other aging-related diseases like arthritis in the remains and found that cancer, in addition to being rare in absolute terms, was rarer than these other diseases, which also suggests an effect beyond what is explained by lifespan differences. But hey, New Scientist debunked it! Would New Scientist ever mislead us?
posted by enn at 12:33 PM on October 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


(Psst, Xoebe. Rosalie David is a woman.)
posted by joannemerriam at 12:37 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reading the paper, it is pretty uncontroversial, just a review of evidence for cancer in antiquity and a brief discussion of why we don't see so much. It even includes the following paragraph:

"Generally, the scarcity of cancer in the earliest remains supports the theory that age at death, diet and environmental factors substantially influence the incidence of cancer in humans. However, other possible factors to explain this lack of evidence include the limitations of the diagnostic methods used by early investigators to study these remains, and the insufficiency of data to provide a reliable rate of cancer incidence."

Reading the University of Manchester press release, they seem to have gone for the "it's in a Nature journal, play it up" angle, with the quote:

"There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer"

from the researcher. I think the media office needs some retraining.
posted by scodger at 12:40 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


enn, I can't speak for the rest of 'em but my snark is directed at the reporting in the popular press, which, even though I can't read the original study, is, I suspect, hyperbolic. The investigators did make some sweeping conclusions though:
“Yet again extensive ancient Egyptian data, along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address.”
From what I can tell, these conclusions are drawn from looking for evidence of things like bone tumors among a few hundred mummies. The incidence of non-metastatic bone tumors is very low in both young and old; it is not unusual to study a few hundred people and find no osteosarcoma, for instance.

So, having spent 25 years reading the scientific literature, I feel pretty confident in saying that, while the press is over-playing this, so is the good Professor. Give me a copy of the paper and I'll give you a better analysis.

That's not to say that there aren't man-made causes for cancer, but I don't think it's a slam-dunk case that it's worse now than it was then.
posted by Mister_A at 12:46 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


But hey, New Scientist debunked it!

They were primarily debunking the distorted version of reality that many people will take away from the news headlines ("Scientists prove cancer is man-made!"), not the actual original research. I find it interesting that they're publishing briefings like that -- they may not be paragons of accuracy themselves, but at least they're trying to counter the most egregious misreadings.
posted by twirlip at 12:47 PM on October 15, 2010


From what I can tell, these conclusions are drawn from looking for evidence of things like bone tumors among a few hundred mummies.

My understanding is that they looked at a few hundred mummies but also several thousand skeletons (presumably that's why they are talking about bone cancers specifically).
posted by enn at 12:48 PM on October 15, 2010


The original review article was published in Nature Reviews Cancer; you need to login to read it.

This will not help the "critical perspective get as much coverage as the original story"
posted by chavenet at 12:48 PM on October 15, 2010


Just to continue on the bone cancer story—incidence of osteosarcoma is something like 5 per million per year. So yes, based on modern incidence, you could study an assload of mummies or zombies or skeletons or ghouls and find not a single osteosarcoma. It's not the only bone tumor out there, but it is one of the more common bone cancers.

Most bone tumors are actually metastases from other sites, esp. breast and prostate. And these metastases we would expect to see in older people.
posted by Mister_A at 12:53 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


What was the average age of those who lived and died and were mummified back then?

What is the average age of those who died from forms of cancer today?

My guess: cancer is a form of disease that comes more often than not in old age and people back then did not live very long.
posted by Postroad at 1:03 PM on October 15, 2010


Like that the investigators, not being complete morons, specifically looked for cancers ...

I think you're missing the point of the snarky responses (or at least mine), which is focused more on the wording than anything else.

Saying that cancer is "has to be a man-made disease" is patently untrue, or at least an incredibly coarse statement, without any nuance. Worse, it frames it in a semi-conspiratorial light -- that if we just stopped ... I don't know ... if we just stopped being so damn modern, we'd cure cancer. Whole Foods to the rescue, yo.

This is horseshit. This is either a hammer-handed headline grab or such monstrously poor communication that it invites dismissal.

This is why the Insane Clown Posse arrives at "I don’t wanna talk to a scientist / Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed." This is why scientists gain the least traction among the people that would be most at benefit from their work.

This is why polar bears die.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:10 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


> Age is the major risk factor for cancer.

Yep. People freak out over cancer these days, and having lost two relatives to it I'm not taking it lightly, but when people were lucky to make it to 40 they were too busy dying of all the stuff we generally don't die of today to die of cancer.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:15 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is why polar bears die.

OMG, polar bears are dying of cancer now too!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:19 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well played.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:25 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is why scientists gain the least traction among the people that would be most at benefit from their work.


Well, here's the original conclusion of the paper:

It is hoped that research in palaeopathology will contribute to the elucidation of the pathogenesis of cancer. The publication of the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy is one step along the way. Despite the fact that other explanations, such as inadequate techniques of disease diagnosis, cannot be ruled out, the rarity of malignancies in antiquity is strongly suggested by the available palaeopathological and literary evidence. This might be related to the prevalence of carcinogens in modern societies.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:38 PM on October 15, 2010


Will the criticism of the criticism be published? Will the criticism of the criticism of the criticism be published? Science isn't a televised debate with point, counterpoint, and rebuttal. It's a long slow conversation. It would honestly be better to wait 5 years after new discoveries to report things in their proper context within the larger discussion.
posted by keratacon at 1:39 PM on October 15, 2010


Wait, do you all still not realize that the life expectancy statistics for premodern societies are significantly distorted by their higher infant mortality rates? Once a premodern person survived to adulthood, he or she was not substantially less likely to live to an advanced age than we are.
posted by nasreddin at 2:05 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


DNA molecules are like IP packets. Each has a TTL (Time To Live) counter in its header, in the form of a strand of telomeres. A telomere is nothing more than the nucleotide sequence 'TTAGGG,' which is the case in all vertebrates.

Every time a cell divides, a telomere is lost from the 'header' of the DNA copy. When there are no more telomeres to lose, 'bits' still keep popping off the DNA, only now those bits come from the data payload, and soon the cell can no longer divide. This is aging at a cellular level.

Sometimes, as a result of that loss of genetic clarity, a cell can mutate such that it produces telomerase, an enzyme which essentially halts the process of telomere 'popping.'

With the telomerase super-power engaged, these broken cells are practically immortal, free to propogate their mutated genetic filth all through the host organism.

That's our most recent understand of cancer, and it pretty well fits with the idea that cancer is simply a disease of senescence. It's a manifestation of the same mechanism that makes us age. Organisms are programmed to die. Without death, there can be no evolution, and with no evolution there is no adaptation, and with no adaptation, there can be no life.

Also, no screenplays based on books.

In any case, yeah. Cancer is the natural order's way of telling us we weren't meant to live as long as we do.
posted by silentpundit at 2:08 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Saying that cancer is "has to be a man-made disease" is patently untrue, or at least an incredibly coarse statement, without any nuance

I think, worse than that, is that the statement is ambiguous. In one interpretation, it dismisses many real, environmental causes of cancer by suggesting that this disease is really something else, that it is a "made up" term, created by scientists for nefarious purposes. In another light, it dismisses a wide range of research that shows many forms of the disease arising from non-man-made environmental causes.

I don't know ... if we just stopped being so damn modern, we'd cure cancer. Whole Foods to the rescue, yo.

There are a lot of lifestyle changes — changes to our environment — that are known to reduce incidence rates of certain specific cancers. Eating less red meat will reduce colon cancer incidence. Reducing intake of pesticides and herbicides on produce will reduce the chance of getting blood and lymph cancers. Abstaining from smoking cigarettes will reduce lung cancer rates, etc.

If your point is that we don't need to "consume" or "buy" our way out of cancer, I'd agree. But certainly changing a number of the inputs to our bodies will improve our overall health. To the extent that this statement gets in the way of this message, I'd agree it is problematic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:12 PM on October 15, 2010


If your point is that we don't need to "consume" or "buy" our way out of cancer, I'd agree. But certainly changing a number of the inputs to our bodies will improve our overall health.

Certainly.

I think it's deeper than that, actually. I think it's an example, among many examples, of "stealth castigation framing," a term I just now made up. ;-)

Stealth castigation framing is where you take a piece of real evidence and frame it in such a way as to point toward a seemingly ipso facto solution, and failure to buy into the solution paints you, the listener, as backward and unenlightened. Or if you criticize something, you must be a raving fan of its direct opposite.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:34 PM on October 15, 2010


I'm not sure I'm very comfortable with evidence coming from historical literature rather than bodies. I mean, I realize they probably accounted for it, but you don't meet many people these days whose cancers were discovered because their tumours were visible under their skin, with their own obvious blood supply (making it look like a crab, hence the name cancer). How many cancers would have killed people long before they were discoverable?

Given that dissections in most of Europe were performed only on executed prisoners (or saints!), and the northern European fetish about keeping the body largely whole prior to burial, I'm not convinced that these particular people would have had many opportunities to study fatal cancers. (I can't really speak for medical practices in the rest of the world.) The first historical records of cancer are of breast cancer, which makes sense; breast cancer tumours are palpable. Lung, liver, stomach, pancreatic, and intestinal cancers? Brain tumours? Not so much visible or palpable.

Surely we diagnose far more cancers now than ever before, but we have more tests for early stage cancers.

Some cancers are clearly environmental or the result of particular toxins of choice; logically I would imagine that there was more lung cancer in people who smoked through most of their working life (Mad Men has been an eye-opener there; I can't imagine what it must have been like to have people smoking in the workplace!), but I don't know if the statistics are supporting that. (If it doesn't, maybe there's more to it than just smoking.) Nuclear experiments result in an increase in thyroid cancers. So it's not as if we can't create cancer in ourselves with our choices. There is clearly an appetite to assign blame when it comes to cancer, one way or another.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:54 PM on October 15, 2010


Is sunlight a cause or a catalyst?
It's ionizing radiation and directly damages your DNA, so I'd call it a cause. No need to invoke esoteric chemistry.

IANACancerResearcher, but I think it's maybe more useful to think of cancer as a symptom common to many diseases, which have different causes. Radiation, carcinogenic chemicals, viruses (HPV, etc), even mechanical irritation (asbestos).
posted by hattifattener at 5:28 PM on October 15, 2010


It's a good paper, but the vast majority of it is simply a description of how difficult it is to diagnose and analyze old bones for tumors. After a thorough description of the difficulties, accompanied with acknowledging the many limitations of their understanding (limited, relatively untested diagnostic methods, only able to look at bone cancers, etc.), they then offer the almost-obvious-at-this-point possibility that it could be related to environmental factors. They do point out the fact that bone cancers, at least in modernity, seem to commonly affect the young, giving the absence of the tumors in the ancient populations a little mystery. But its certainly inconclusive, and the authors understand that, and any educated people who actually read the paper would understand that, but that nuance is lost in the reporting.

Anyway, if anyone would like to read the paper mefimail me your email and I'll send it to you.
posted by switchsonic at 5:41 PM on October 15, 2010


"There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer."

That is just flat-out, trivially incorrect. I can't help but think that whoever said that doesn't know anything about cancer or nature.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:15 PM on October 15, 2010


Both cancer and old age are basically the result of an accumulation of error - something that seems fitting in this case.
posted by Artw at 9:34 AM on October 16, 2010


Stealth castigation framing is where you take a piece of real evidence and frame it in such a way as to point toward a seemingly ipso facto solution, and failure to buy into the solution paints you, the listener, as backward and unenlightened.

Well, an increase in the rate of certain specific, previously rare cancers is definitely a modern phenomenon, and due to causes that we have researched and understand fairly well, both down to lifestyle choices as much as the larger industrial society we live in — some of which is likely the end result of the unbounded experiments we're doing with the soup of persistent chemicals in our blood.

Much of this seems reasonably conclusive, even if the solutions (stronger regulations, more stringent environmental laws) are bad for big business, and even if this researcher's words are poorly or ambiguously phrased.

I'm not sure there's any campaign here to shame people into buying food from (e.g.) Whole Foods. In the larger picture, however, educating people about organic and local food — such as is sold at Whole Foods, food co-ops and other similar shops — as well as, for example, the benefits of reduced meat consumption seem like responsible approaches, if we're trying to improve everyone's health.

It would be nothing much different from a literacy campaign trying to get more people reading, for example. Educated people make better choices, on the whole. Enlightenment and knowledge are values that society should promote, however gently.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:25 PM on October 16, 2010


"these broken cells are practically immortal, free to propogate their mutated genetic filth all through the host organism."

Can I take issue with the word "filth"? I think I will. Filth is dirty. Malformed DNA is just degraded information. I know we're supposed to hate cancer and all, but anthropomorphizing it to that extent seems to me to work against understanding the nature of the process.
posted by sneebler at 11:47 PM on October 16, 2010


Filth is dirty. Malformed DNA is just degraded information.

A pile of dirt is only 'filth' when it's messing up the intended non-dirtiness of its surroundings, though. In a big bag of dirt, dirt is right at home.

Likewise, DNA with replication errors messes up the non-erroneousness of its host organism, and can be called 'filth' fairly safely, I feel like.

Even if the 'filth' gives the organism super spider powers. After all, one time, Peter Parker's mutation went out of control, and he turned into this totally gross spider creature, and gross spider creatures are all kinds of filthy.
posted by silentpundit at 5:14 PM on October 17, 2010


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