Cancer may not depend on natural factors, as British scientists claim it is largely a man-made disease caused by lifestyle factors like diet and pollution.

A team at Manchester University investigated ancient Egyptian remains, looking for signs of cancer, and diagnosed the disease in an Egyptian mummy for the first time — but it says finding just one case after examining hundreds of mummies proves cancer was then extremely rare.

The scientists also found very few references to the symptoms of cancer in ancient literature; there has been a huge increase in cancer cases since the Industrial Revolution, the Daily Express reported.

According to the scientists, this proves the rise is not due simply to people living longer.

Professor Rosalie David, at the university’s faculty of life sciences, said: “In industrialised 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.”

Michael Zimmerman of Manchester University diagnosed cancer in an unnamed mummy, an “ordinary” person who had lived in the Dakhleh Oasis, now part of the Libyan desert, three centuries before the birth of Christ.

Prof. Zimmerman said: “The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.”

The team also checked human and animal remains back to the age of dinosaurs but found only a few dozen mostly disputed, examples of cancer in animal fossils.

It has been suggested that in ancient times people did not live long enough to develop cancer, although people in ancient Egypt and Greece did live long enough to develop atherosclerosis, Paget’s bone disease and osteoporosis. In modern populations bone tumours primarily affect the young.

Not until they studied the 17th century did the scientists find descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers.

The first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours occurred only in the past 200 years.

Initial reports include nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761 and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832.

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