Second Opinion: Was cancer always around?

Dr. Murray Feingold

Cancer is the second most common cause of death. Cardiovascular disease is the most common.

But was cancer always a leading cause of death?

In the Middle Ages, infections were rampant. A good example was the Black Death, or The Plague, caused by bacteria. It is estimated that between 25 percent and 50 percent of Europe's population died from The Plague. Heart disease was certainly present in those times. Another common cause of death was hunger and malnutrition.

What about cancer?

In an attempt to determine when cancer first became a health concern, researchers from England studied hundreds of mummies going back 1,000 years. The researchers claimed that the mummification process more than likely would preserve such cancers.

During that time period, they uncovered only one mummy that had cancer. X-ray examinations of mummies from those eras did not demonstrate the presence of cancer. Nor did the available literature at that time mention the presence of cancer.

The researchers concluded that cancer is a man-made disease because of environmental factors.

They found it wasn't until the 17th century that writings about surgery for various types of cancer appeared. The writings show the incidence of cancer increased tremendously during the Industrial Revolution, between the 17th and 18th centuries, giving more credence to cancer being made by man.

However, a common cause of skin cancer is sun exposure. The sun, of course, was present in the Middle Ages, which raises the question, “Were melanomas present in the Middle Ages? If they weren’t, why not?”

The many air pollutants we breathe each day were not present centuries ago. Nor were cigarettes or radiation, both carcinogens. And we now know much more about cancer genes.

For example, a person normally has tumor suppressor genes that suppress the growth of cancers. If these suppressor genes are mutated and no longer function, the cancers grow. Other genes can also enhance cell growth. Environmental factors can also cause mutations in genes and this fits into the researchers' theories.

Not everybody believes the fundamental cause of all cancers is environmental. But there is no question that certain environmental factors do cause cancer, and many of them are controllable.

So we need to control the controllable, starting with cleaning up our polluted air.

Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.