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Medieval cancer shock

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Between nine and 14 percent of Britain’s medieval population may have suffered from some form of cancer, according to researchers from Cambridge University.

The team carried out radiological imaging – X-rays and CT scans – on 134 medieval skeletons from six cemeteries in or around the city that date between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. Ninety-six men, 46 women, and one individual of unknown sex made up the sample. At least five of them displayed signs of malignancy – to a minimum of 3.5 percent. This finding, extrapolated from a small sample, has come as somewhat of a surprise, as it has long been assumed that the big killers in medieval people were dysentery and bubonic plague, also malnutrition from accidents or warfare.

Most cancers form in soft tissues, which long vanish from skeletons hundreds of years old. Instead, the team searched within the bones looking for signs of malignancy. CT scans revealed cancer lesions deep inside bones that appeared completely normal on the surface. This was challenging research, carried out on incomplete bodies. This meant that the study focused on people with intact spinal columns, pelvises and thigh bones. Modern experience has shown that these are the most likely bones to contain metastases (secondary malignancies) in people with cancer. The percentage of medieval cancers is small compared with today’s rates, in which 40-50 percent of the modern British population that have cancer by the time they die. This is three or four times more commonplace than thousand years ago, almost certainly because of industrial pollution and tobacco use.

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