Has cancer always existed?

04 November 2012

Question

I was wondering, how long has cancer existed as a condition and also, whether organisms other than animals can get cancer?

Answer

Kat - I can answer this with my day job hat on, working for Cancer Research UK. Cancer has pretty much always been with us and it's a disease that can affect any multicellular organ or organism because it's just caused by cells going wrong.

So we know for example that plants can get cancer, all kinds of animals can get cancer. Most of them don't seem to live long enough to get it, but it's a disease that has always been with us. There's evidence from things like dinosaur bones and fossilised human remains, and even before that, Neanderthal remains, that cancer has always been a disease that's affected us. So, it's pretty much as old as you like really.

Chris - Just to pick you up on the plants thing of course, they won't have a multisystem type problem that a person with cancer would have. They wouldn't get spread necessarily for tumour to other bits of the plant, would they?

Kat - No, but they get - if you've ever seen a big sort of bulging gall on the plant. That's basically a plant kind of tumour because something has hijacked the cells of that plant and made them grow out of control which is basically what's going on in cancer - either the genes have become faulty or in the case of some viruses, they've hijacked the cells and are making them grow. But cells growing out of control are cancer and pretty much any complex organisms will get it.

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