Is Cancer a Modern Disease?

Some scientists believe that cancer is a man-made disease, but others don’t.

According to the research conducted in 2010 by Michael R. Zimmerman and A. Rosalie David, cancer is a modern, “man-made disease caused by environmental factors such as pollution and diet” (“Scientists”). However, this position is not widely accepted. Cancer Research UK calls these claims “false and misleading,” and the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC), which is the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), asserts that “cancer is not a modern disease but has clearly existed for many centuries” (Arney; IARC). Clearly, the question of whether or not cancer is a modern, man-made disease is a contentious issue. But just how valuable is this question to actually tackling cancer?

According to an overview on the history of cancer published by the Institut Jules Bordet, the incidence of cancer was rare before the modern era, but there certainly are “some ancient descriptions of so-called malignant tumors” (“The History”). The IARC argues that the reason that there is an illusory belief that cancer is a modern disease is that, first of all, the average life expectancy during the time of the ancient Egyptians was 40 and that, throughout most of human history, the technology simply did not exist to diagnose people with cancer. Quite simply, “better clinical diagnosis [in the modern era] has led to more cases of cancer being diagnosed, a proportion of which would have previously been missed [in ancient times]” (IARC). Additionally, because cancer is more frequent amongst the elderly and people did not live until the seventies, eighties, or nineties hundreds of years ago, the incidence of cancer was much smaller than it is in the modern day. As Dr. Lesley Walker, a cancer specialist, said in interview with Cancer Research UK:

[Cancer] has always been with us. It was actually found in mummies, so cancer was always there. The key thing about cancer is that we know it gets so much more common in older age. One thing that we absolutely know about ancient population—including the Egyptians—is that their lifespan would have been much shorter than our lifespan now. It’s inevitable that cancer would have been rare, that it would have been harder to find cancer in those populations. (Arney)

The IARC and the medical establishment agree with Dr. Walker’s assertion that cancer is not a modern disease. However, the medical establishment and the IARC also recognize that many people do hold the belief that cancer is indeed a modern disease. The IARC addresses this in the opening line of their publication Global Cancer Control: “[c]ancer can quite easily be thought of as a modern disease but there are good reasons why this may only appear to be the case” (IARC).

Rosalie David, professor and one of the leading cancer researchers at the University of Manchester, strongly disagrees with the assertions of the IARC. She concluded, based on the study that she conducted with Michael R. Zimmerman at the University of Manchester, that:

In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle. (“Scientists”)

David and Zimmerman both recognize the presence of malignant tumors in ancient Egyptian mummies, but claim that these tumors were likely caused by non-natural factors, such as the “fires [in their homes], which gave off smoke” or the “incense [in the temples].” (There were also some claims that tumors were found in dinosaur fossils, but none of this evidence is conclusive and therefore cannot be cited in professional research.) If this were indeed the case, then the theories of the IARC and the medical establishment, which hinge their belief on cancer’s not being a modern disease on the empirical evidence presented in ancient Egyptian mummies, would essentially be nullified.

But what is this significance of this debate? Is it meaningful and useful or is it all merely academic? Because most of the prevailing theories on the origin of cancer, such as the “somatic mutation theory of cancer,” which posits that exogenous agents (i.e. cigarette smoke, chemical carcinogens, etc.) damage and active and oncogenes responsible for keeping cellular growth organized (Sonnenschein), a clear and thorough understanding of the origins of cancer are essential to creating effective prevention methods and cures.

Though the question of the origin of cancer largely remains unanswered by the scientific community, the IARC has expended immense resources to compile a list of some of the world’s most well-known carcinogens as a means to show the origins of some cancers—many of which are linked to modern chemicals. This list is separated into 5 categories and is used as a means of cancer prevention, helping people to avoid the most carcinogenic substances: Group 1 consists of substances that are “carcinogenic to humans”; Group 2A consists of substances that are “probably carcinogenic to humans”; Group 2B consists of substances “possibly carcinogenic to humans”; Group 3 consists of substances “not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity to humans”; Group 4 consists of substances “probably not carcinogenic to humans” (“List of Classifications”). Though the IARC considers its monographs to be “widely respected for their scientific rigor, standardized and transparent process, and freedom from conflicts of interest,” some other entities, such as the American Chemistry Council, have been far more critical of the agency (Kelland).

According to the American Chemistry Council, the IARC performs “dubious and misleading work” in classifying potential carcinogens (Kelland). Other critics, such as Ed Yong, accuse the IARC of creating an arcane and byzantine classification system:

The International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC) … is notable for two things. First, they’re meant to carefully assess whether things cause cancer, from pesticides to sunlight, and to provide the definite word on those possible risks. Second, they’re terrible at communicating their findings. (Yong)

A US House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform also held a briefing in 2016, questioning whether or not the IARC was a flawed agency and whether or not the National Institutes of Health needed to halt their funding to the agency.

Cancer is a serious illness that kills more people in poor countries than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, so research into its origins and methods of prevention is clearly a matter of great importance. Approximately $320 billion is spent each year on cancer treatment and prevention (“Worse than AIDS”). The IARC is therefore an agency that, because of its research work for so serious an illness as cancer and because of its affiliation to a respected body such as the World Health Organization, has not incurred much criticism until recently. Its efforts since 1965 have been helpful, but, based on some of the criticisms, it appears that it is long overdue for reform.

The IARC does address the question of whether cancer is a modern disease or not, since it is clearly integral to understanding prevention methods for cancer. If cancer is a modern, man-made disease, as David and Zimmerman assert, and is not created by anything in the natural environment, then agencies such as the IARC need to re-focus their efforts on the man-made carcinogens that have been introduced into the environment rather than on genetics and elements of the natural environment. If Zimmerman and David are wrong, on the other hand, as Cancer Research UK and the medical establishment believe, then efforts can remain on genetics, elements of the environment, and other causes of cancer.

Though it is currently inconclusive if cancer is or is not a modern disease, the question of whether or not it is modern and man-made is certainly an important question and one that needs to be answered.

Author: Bill Schneider


1. Arney, Kat. “Claims that cancer is only a ‘modern, man-made disease’ are false and misleading,” Cancer Research UK, Cancer Research UK, 14 October 2010,
2010/10/14/claims-that-cancer-is-only-a-%E2%80%98modern-man-made-disease%E2%80%99-are-false-and-misleading/. Accessed 7 April 2017.

2. David, Rosalie A., & Zimmerman, Michael R. “Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?”, Nature Reviews Cancer 10, pp. 728-733, October 2010,
v10/n10/full/nrc2914.html. Accessed 7 April 2017. 

3. “The History of Cancer,” Institut Jules Bordet, Accessed 7 April 2017.

4. IARC (2008). Global Cancer Control. Retrieved from

5. Kelland, Kate. “US Chemical Industry Body Calls for Reform of WHO Cancer Agency,” 25 January 2017, Reuters, Accessed 7 April 2017.

6. “List of Classifications,” IARC, 26 January 2017. Accessed 7 April 2017.

7. “Scientists suggest that cancer is purely man-made,”, 14 October 2010, Accessed 7 April 2017.

8. Sonnenschein C. & Soto, A.M. “The somatic mutation theory of cancer: growing problems with the paradigm?” Bioessays, 26 October 2006. Accessed 7 April 2017.

9. “Worse than AIDS,” The Economist, 1 March 2014, Accessed 7 April 2017.

10. Yong, Ed. “Beefing With the World Health Organization’s Cancer Warnings,” 26 October 2015,
archive/2015/10/why-is-the-world-health-organization-so-bad-at-communicating-cancer-risk/412468/. Accessed 7 April 2017.