Plague wasn't the only disease that afflicted medieval Britons. Cancer did, too

A human vertebra dating back to medieval times shows evidence of cancer metastases.

(CNN)The earliest description of cancer is from an ancient Egyptian papyrus, and going back further, even dinosaurs suffered a form of the disease. But cancer long has been thought to have become a common disease only in the last two centuries or so.

This is, in part, down to longer life expectancies, habits like smoking, and exposure to tumor-inducing chemicals post-industrial revolution.
However, new research published in the journal Cancer on medieval skeletons has suggested that cancer was more widespread than previously realized -- although still less common than today.
    In the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom analyzed 143 skeletons from six cemeteries from the Cambridge area that were dated to between the sixth and 16th centuries. To detect malignant lesions, the team focused on three areas most likely to contain secondary malignant growth in people with cancer -- the spinal column, pelvis and thigh bone.
      The scientists visually inspected the bones and used radiographs and computed tomography scans. The team found that 3.5% of the individuals showed evidence of metastatic cancer -- that is, when the malignant tumor spreads to a different part of the body from where it started.
      "The majority of cancers form in soft tissue organs long since degraded in medieval remains. Only some cancer spreads to bone, and of these only a few are visible on its surface, so we searched within the bone for signs of malignancy," said Piers Mitchell, a senior research associate and director of the Ancient Parasites Laboratory at the University of Cambridge's department of archaeology, in a news statement.
      Taking into account data on modern populations that shows CT scans detect bone metastases around 75% of the time and the proportion of cancer deaths that involve spread to the bone, the researchers estimated that 9% to 14% of medieval Britons developed cancer.
        "Modern research shows a third to a half of people with soft tissue cancers will find the tumor spreads to their bones. We combined this data with evidence of bone metastasis from our study to estimate cancer rates for medieval Britain," explained Mitchell, the study's lead author.
        The remains of numerous individuals were unearthed on the site of the former Hospital of St. John the Evangelist in the city of Cambridge, UK. Skeletal remains were investigated as part of the study.