March is Women’s History Month, and, as all of us know, women have a lot of history with breast cancer. Breast cancer is predominantly a woman’s disease, with one in eight women destined to be diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime.
Since we are talking about history, it might be interesting to take a walk down breast cancer memory lane. According to Random History, in 400 B.C., Hippocrates described breast cancer as a “humoral disease caused by black bile or melancholia.” He labeled cancer karkinos, meaning “crab,” because the tumors seemed to have tentacles that looked like the legs of a crab.
Physicians in ancient Egypt described breast cancer as “bulging” tumors in the breast for which “there is no cure.” In the 19th century, women endured mastectomies without anesthesia. Fortunately, things changed and the first operation to use anesthesia was a breast cancer surgery.
Historical figures who were diagnosed with breast cancer include Mary Washington (mother of George), Empress Theodora (wife of Justinian), and Anne of Austria (mother of Louis the XIV). Breast cancer did not discriminate even then.
Throughout history, physicians thought breast cancer was caused by several factors, including lack of sex, which caused reproductive organs, such as the breast, to atrophy and rot. Other physicians suggested that “vigorous sex” blocked the lymphatic system, restricted blood vessels and trapped coagulated blood, and that a sedentary lifestyle slowed bodily fluids.
Interesting that some of their theories – like sedentary lifestyle – have come back to haunt us, don’t you think?
In the 20th century, Jerome Urban (1914-1991), practiced the super-radical mastectomy in 1949. He would remove not only the breast and axillary nodes, but also the chest muscles and internal mammary nodes in a single procedure, regardless of tumor size. Fortunately, he stopped in 1963 when he became convinced it worked no better than the less mutilating radical mastectomy.
Since the 1950s, the incidence of breast cancer in the U.S. began to increase and mastectomy was the only acceptable surgical option until the ‘70s. The practice of the day was that if the tumor was malignant, they would remove your breast. No discussion – you just woke up without a breast!
That last sentence jarred my memory – my mother experienced that real true-to-life horror story.
My mother had a breast biopsy in the ‘70s. I lived in Boston at the time and, of course, as parents did in those days and probably still do today, they did not want to tell their children anything that might upset them, so nobody told my sisters or me about it until after it was over.
Weeks later, after my mother realized she could have lost her breast, she was quite upset. She told all of us that she was so shocked because there was no discussion prior to the surgery. She was clueless. She never thought the surgeon would do something like that without her consent. But they did and they did it all the time!
By the way, my mother did not have breast cancer.
It’s scary to think how many women woke up shocked during those years!
Thank goodness things have changed.
Muriel, the editor, 5-year survivor
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