Cancer was much more widespread in mediaeval times than previously believed, according to a new study.

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Cancer may seem to be a modern epidemic, but recent research shows that it infected up to 14% of adults in mediaeval Britain.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge used X-rays and CT scans to look for signs of cancer in skeletal remains excavated as part of an extensive review of mediaeval life.

The researchers uncovered cancer frequencies that were about ten times greater than had previously been discovered by testing only the exteriors of the bones for lesions.

“The majority of cancers form in soft tissue organs long since degraded in medieval remains. Only some cancer spreads to bone, and of these only a few are visible on its surface, so we searched within the bone for signs of malignancy,” said lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell of the department of archaeology at Cambridge.

Mitchell stated that according to current studies, one-third to one-half of soft tissue cancers spread to the bones. His team used this information, along with evidence of bone spread, to estimate mediaeval cancer rates.

The researchers examined 143 skeletons from six cemeteries dating from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries for the study. The bodies included 96 males, 46 women, and one person of unknown sex.

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“Using CT scans we were able to see cancer lesions hidden inside a bone that looked completely normal on the outside,” said study co-author Jenna Dittmar.

“Until now it was thought that the most significant causes of ill health in medieval people were infectious diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague, along with malnutrition and injuries due to accidents or warfare,” said Dittmar, an archeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Just a small percentage of the excavated remains is complete. Only people with an intact spinal column, pelvis, and thigh bones were considered, as they were more likely to have cancer that had spread, or metastases.

Cancer was discovered in the bones of five people, mainly in the pelvis, according to the researchers. They estimated a higher range of 9% to 14% since CT scans identify bone metastases around 75% of the time and about one-third to half of cancer deaths involve bone spread.

The sample size is small, and diagnosing cancer in those who have been dead for centuries is difficult, the study’s authors cautioned in a press release issued by the University of Cambridge.

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In modern Britain, about 40% to 50% of people have cancer by the time they die.

The influence of tobacco, which started to be smuggled into Britain in the 16th century, and the effects of pollution after the 18th century industrial revolution may be factors leading to the rise.

It may also include DNA-damaging viruses, which are becoming more common with long-distance travel, as well as longer life spans, which allow cancers to grow more slowly.

The results were announced in the journal Cancer on Friday.

The study was conducted as part of the After the Plague programme, which aims to learn more about mediaeval health, life, and death from a burial ground excavated in 2010.

More informationThe American Cancer Society has more on the history of cancer.

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