In one of the oldest documented cases of prostate cancer in history, a recent radiological examination of an Egyptian mummy revealed that the ancient Egyptians were affected by prostate cancer too. The mummy, one of the exhibits at Lisbon’s National Archaeology Museum, is from Egypt’s Ptolemaic period. Estimated to have died in his mid-fifties, new advances in scanning technology reveal that the ancient royal suffered from heart disease and osteoarthritis but likely died as a result of advanced prostate cancer that had metastasized and spread through much of the skeleton. It’s an interesting example of the fact that although ancient Egyptian royalty exercised great power, they were powerless in the face of a disease for which the average person today has many options to treat.
Although it’s the first definitive proof that the ancient Egyptians suffered from a health issue that continues to plague modern populations, it’s not the oldest example on record. In 2007, the 2,700-year-old skeleton of a Scythian king was found in the south of modern-day Siberia. Although it’s unsure whether the advanced case of prostate cancer caused the king’s death, the skeleton showed that the cancer had metastasized. It may seem odd that so few examples of prostate cancers have been discovered in the historical record. But prostate cancer tends to strike men in their 40s and older. The fact that life expectancies for much of history were so much lower than today may account for the relative rarity in ancient times. It’s entirely possible that men simply didn’t live long enough for symptoms to develop. It’s also possible that our ancient ancestors lived in an environment containing fewer carcinogens.
Prostate cancer doesn’t get a lot of press, news coverage, or philanthropic support as breast or lung cancer, but it’s a serious health concern for men. My grandfather died from surgical complications after a prostate cancer operation. And although treatments have become more sophisticated with time, prostate cancer is deadly if undetected and untreated. My father also was diagnosed with prostate cancer and though his operation was successful, the radiation that was used to treat him damaged his bladder and as a result he suffers from occasional incontinence and the need to urinate frequently. This causes frequent trips to the bathroom which disturb his sleep nightly and can lead to embarrassing situations in public. Although his prostate cancer was detected early and promptly treated, he could have benefited from treatment options that focus on precision.
Proton therapy is a treatment option for prostate cancer that’s been used since the 1950s. Unlike other forms of radiation treatments, the proton beam used in proton therapy places most of its energy directly at the targeted tissue which spares the surrounding healthy tissue. This results in a naturally more precise method of targeting cancerous tissue and may have been a better option for my father’s prostate cancer treatment. The good news about prostate cancer is that men have treatment options that just weren’t possible in the past. But early detection is still the best way to ensure that treatment options have the highest chances of success.