How common was cancer in the past?

Not the recent past but beyond two or three hundred years.

Happy new year too.

See Cancer is primarily a disease of older people and compare with Life Expectancy — Our World in Data one would get the feeling that most did not live long enough to get cancer.

There were some causes of cancer which weren’t common in the distant past–like smoking cigarettes, asbestos and farm chemicals.

We don’t really have a clear analysis of how common certain causes of death actually were before the last century or so, and data only gradually became more accurate.

Unless you can specifically analyze and diagnose cancer, it’s going to be a collection of unpleasant symptoms that preceded death, different from person to person. Most likely, a great many did die of cancer in the past, but there was no clear way to count them. And even in those cases recent enough to know that certain people had cancer, it’s unclear whether that was what actually caused death. You can often live with cancer for many years, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone sick with cancer to pass away from pneumonia or heart failure.

common people didn’t live long enough to get cancer. nobles were obese in old age and died from stroke after banquets and balls

I recall reading a report from the early 20th century in which a doctor was excited about having a patient with lung cancer, because the disease was so rare. The patient was a follower of the new fad of cigarette smoking.

Go back 300 years and physicians’ ideas about the nature of disease and infection were still evolving. Autopsy was not common. Occasionally one finds a clear enough description of symptoms to make a reasonable deduction of the nature of someone’s illness, but more often it’s too vague.

Very true: in Edmund Halley’s classic treatise on the statistics of the human life span, he listed one of the common causes of death as “Rising of the Lights”-what was that?

A lung infection of children apparently.

For a long time, tuberculosis was the #1 cause of death, and diseases like smallpox and chloera were also up there. You have to die, and as those diseases were times, cancer became more common. It was also hard to diagnose it the tumor wasn’t obvious from an external exam, so it was probably misses a lot!

I remember coming across that story somewhere too. There was a gathering of students or doctors around the body afterwards, they were keen to learn about something that was apparently rare at the time.

Lung cancer probably wasn’t all that uncommon in the 19th century and even earlier, thanks not only to smoking but to industrial exposures (i.e. coal mining, iron and steel processing, copper smelting etc.).

Diagnosis wasn’t very precise in those days, and a lot of cases likely were missed.

Probably as common as it is now, relative to the ages of the people involved.

Archaeologists find cancer-ridden bones all the time, and as might be expected, are more likely to find them the older people get.

I found out recently that until about 100 or so years ago, cancer was believed to mostly affect women, because of the incidence of uterine, cervical, and breast cancer, which left visible evidence. Men’s symptoms were usually more vague and often attributed to other things, until they dropped dead.

You might be interested in The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee. He does an excellent job detailing the history of cancer. PBS did a special on the book that is also quite good, but the book is far more detailed.

Lot of people did not live to age 40 back in that time line. So cancer would be much less of problem for people.

War, poverty, dirty living conditions, fighting and infection disease was more of problem in that time line.

Now it is cancer, diabetes, obesity, stroke and cardiovascular problem.

I don’t know exactly what historical period you’re referring to as “back in that time line”, but the whole “not living to 40” thing is largely a myth. Back in preindustrial times, high infant mortality reduced the average life expectancy significantly, but if you made it into adulthood, the odds were pretty good that you’d last a good long time. Well past 40.

My mother once told me that she remembered when “cancer” was a dirty word. In her book about childhood cancer “I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Go to Boise,” Erma Bombeck remembers in her youth people would say “He’s very, *very[I/] sic.” The second “very” mean cancer.

It was considered an unmentionable disease until the 1960’s.

Cancers and tumors were known of in ancient times (although not all ancient tumors were “cancers” (carcinomas and sarcomas) as we understand them today).

I saw a woodcut from a old medical text (?maybe renaissance) which showed a mastectomy being performed- it looked barbaric and probably not survivable. I know that they were may of stern stuff back then, but I can’t imagine anyone undergoing that (or doing it to someone else) unless they thought it was pretty important.

However, as everyone else upthread has pointed out, it would be nearly impossible to do much of a comparison between eras unless you could find suitable volume of comparable information. Even today, cancer statistics get skewed by evolving detection and definitions of cancer conditions (although this can be sometimes be corrected for by careful investigators, if they have access to enough original information or material).

I suppose it could be possible to look at statistically large groups of (relatively complete) skeletons from different eras and try to get a handle on the prevalence of skeletal metastatic disease at death relative to age at death. If you can find enough statistically relevant skeletons, that is (that is, you don’t want only rich people or people who died in battle, etc). I guess places like Pompeii could give you meaningful results.

Could be “American Heritage” magazine, December 1992

Cigarettes as we know them today have only been around for a hundred years; they were created for WWI soldiers. The term may have been in use earlier for short cigars or hand-rolled smokes (like in that Mucha illustration), but nobody smoked twenty of those a day. This is the major lifestyle-related cause of cancer.

Otherwise, people died in massive numbers from acute conditions before they could develop terminal ones. The turning point for this state of affairs was the medical profession’s acceptance of Cell Pathology as the origin of illnesses instead of the Four Bodily Humours, roughly around the time of the American Civil War. Doctors started washing their hands before and after treating patients, a big change, and surgeons were doctors by training instead of barbers. And enough people started living longer, long enough to develop cancers, for the disease to become commonplace.

Background radiation from nuclear bomb tests from the 1940s-on contributed as well. So did cavalier attitudes towards waste disposal as the industrial revolution ramped up.