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More than half of all Britons today are expected to get cancer in their lifetime.
Recent archaeological research from earlier eras showed that about 10 percent of pre-industrial residents suffered from cancer in pre-industrial Britain. People were exposed to carcinogens in alcohol consumption and indoor pollutants from wood and coal fires. But cancer markedly increased when tobacco was introduced and with the pollution caused by the industrial world.
Past studies of cancer rates in pre-industrial people relied on visual assessments of skeletal remains. But the majority of cancers start in soft tissues, and only some spread to the bones, which means that looking at bones is not the whole story.
Only one-third to one-half of modern cancer deaths involve spread to the bone. Applying those constraints to the medieval skeletons means that between 9 and 14 percent of pre-industrial Britons likely had cancer.
Studying past cancers has implications for modern medicine. Seeing how cancer affected a pre-industrial society might help future researchers quantify how cancer-causing products affected human health.
Researchers stress that not all cancer is caused by industrial pollutants. Paleopathology combined with modern medicine could help quantify the extent that today's pollutants increase or decrease your risk of cancer.
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