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Human skeleton found in the ground
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Evolution of a mortal enemy

Source: Getty

What the Bones Know

Kathryn Hunt, Unlocking Cancer's Ancient Past

Why you should care

Archaeologist and cancer survivor Kathryn Hunt is on a personal quest to unlock the secrets of cancer’s ancient origins, which may hold the key to prevention, detection and treatment today. 

Kathryn Hunt was a carefree, Ultimate Frisbee-playing, archaeology-loving 22-year-old when doctors detected a large tumor engulfing her right ovary. The diagnosis: malignant ovarian cancer. Around the same time, her aunt died of a rare form of cancer; she was 37.

But Hunt didn’t let tragedy slow her down. Just two months after she finished chemotherapy, she embarked on an excavation in the Valley of the Kings, where King Tutankhamen and other pharaohs lie buried, for her senior research project. Her project has since evolved into a personal quest to unearth ancient patterns of cancer incidence — which might help us fight the disease today.

We often think of cancer as a modern disease linked to pollution, fast food and other realities of the modern world, thanks largely to a controversial 2010 paper in Nature Reviews Cancer, which counted only a handful of cancer cases among tens of thousands of Egyptian mummies. “It needed much more evidence,” says Hunt, a 2014 TED Fellow. There may have been many more cases; archaeologists just lack the standards and tools to accurately detect the disease.

Kathryn smiling in front of site dig

Source: Denis Whitfill

That’s why Hunt, now 27 and cancer-free, is launching the Paleo-Oncological Research Organization, a collaboration of archaeologists, oncologists and cancer researchers to develop rigorous standards and techniques for detecting cancer in ancient skeletal remains. In the next three weeks, the organization will unveil its website, which will include an open-source database that documents evidence of cancer in more than 200 remains from multiple societies and eras. This spring, the organization will host a conference on paleo-oncology — the study of cancer in ancient humans — to further encourage collaboration.

Understanding how a cancer-causing mutation changed over time might allow us to predict how it could change in the future and possibly even inhibit it.

A more complete picture of cancer could help us better understand its causes, which could lead to more effective prevention, detection and treatment. For example, understanding how a cancer-causing mutation changed over time might allow us to predict how it could change in the future and possibly even inhibit it.

But Hunt faces a long road ahead. There are no standards for identifying cancer in human remains, and very few paleo-oncologists to help develop them. And detecting evidence of cancer in bone alone can be next to impossible with current techniques.

But this survivor has no plans of throwing in the trowel. “This is so much more than just a passion,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think what I’m doing right now could directly contribute to cancer research before I die. But it absolutely will contribute to it someday. It’s something I’ll spend the rest of my life doing… so no one else has to go through what I went through.”

Kathryn standing holding up a pair of bones

Kathryn at the Kings Valley Tomb in 2008

Hunt looks like your typical 20-something woman in college sweats and a tousled bun, but she speaks with a conviction beyond her years. Her thirst for archaeology dates back to her childhood in Alaska, when she clipped and filed every National Geographic article on the subject.

While studying archaeology at Washington’s Pacific Lutheran University, Hunt fell in love with Egyptology. She signed up on a whim for a dig along the Nile Delta and excavated the remains of ancient Egyptian elites entombed in the nearby Valley of the Kings.

Toward the end of her junior year, she started feeling “off.” Her stomach was bloated and she gained weight, even though she hiked, played Ultimate Frisbee, danced several times a week and ate organic. She brushed it off, blaming the stress of final exams. But it only got worse. And then one night, she awoke to searing abdominal pain.

She eventually checked into an urgent care facility, where doctors found a huge tumor on her right ovary. Ever optimistic, Hunt didn’t think too much of it. “I thought, ‘I’ll just get it removed, and everything will be fixed,’” she said.

Then the biopsy results arrived, and they showed the tumor was malignant. I’m going to die, Hunt thought. She sobbed — but only for a few minutes. As soon as she left the hospital, she bought seven books on cancer at Barnes & Noble. “Everything is going to work out,” she told herself.

Hunt jetted back to the Valley of the Kings, bald and hobbling on a cane. “It’s what I was fighting for, to go back and do what I loved to do,” she said.

Even as she underwent two months of aggressive chemotherapy, Hunt fought to stay positive. It was tough, though. She suffered from depression, a common side effect of chemotherapy. And her aunt was losing her own battle with cancer. “She was my idol,” Hunt said. The two shared the same name and mannerisms. Sometimes Hunt even mistook her aunt’s photos for her own. She’s me, Hunt thought. If she couldn’t fight it, does that mean I can’t fight it?

Her aunt uttered six simple words before she died: “My cancer is not your cancer.” It was a mantra that pushed Hunt through the rest of her treatment.

After her final round of chemo, Hunt underwent surgery to remove more than 20 benign abdominal tumors — and was back in class soon afterward. Two months later, she jetted back to the Valley of the Kings, bald and hobbling on a cane. “It’s what I was fighting for, to go back and do what I loved to do,” she said. She drew plenty of looks — usually of pity or fear. Is this how ancient people reacted to cancer? she wondered.

She devoted her senior thesis to answering the question and discovered pages of ancient texts that referenced cancer, including a Mesopotamian papyrus scroll of physician’s notes describing the disease.

Kathryn Hunt working on an excavation

Cancer clearly existed in ancient times, but no one was looking for it. So Hunt documented evidence of cancer in a handful of human remains for her master’s thesis at Durham University. But there were no standards to analyze them, and no readily available evidence of other specimens for comparison. “It wouldn’t be useful in the long run, because there was no foundation,” she said. “I didn’t want to do something half-assed.”

While researching the literature, Hunt made an astonishing finding: Many ancient cancer victims were significantly younger than those of today, even though their cells had less time to accumulate cancer-causing mutations. The discovery could shed light on why cancer afflicts Hunt and other young, seemingly healthy individuals today.

So she decided to build the foundation herself and co-founded the first-ever Paleo-Oncological Research Organization. She began by poring over countless journal articles, where she found 230 descriptions of cancer in ancient remains and compiled them into a database.

Developing standards to identify cancer will be an even more daunting task. About 90 percent of cancers form in soft tissues that decay over time, unless they spread to the bones, says George Johnson, author of The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. Even then, “the markings may not survive,” he said. “Bone-eating lesions can cause a specimen to crumble and disappear.” And it could take many years for Hunt and others to design techniques to detect proteins and other molecular biomarkers of cancer.

Hunt knows her work will raise more questions than answers — which is exactly what she wants. “If you have a question, you have a direction,” she said. “I want to create a very, very solid jumping off point…. I don’t think anything can deter me at this point.”

Correction: This story was updated to correctly state Hunt’s aunt’s age at death.

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Meet The Author Melissa Pandika

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with eye to all things science, medicine and more. Like? Distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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