Many of us are aware that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but few people know the history of this disease. While there is still much to learn about Breast Cancer, we do have the answer to some of the more basic questions. Who first learned about breast cancer? What are past and present treatments? When did doctors start treating it? Where did it originate? How has research progressed since the first observation of it? This article will outline what we know about the discovery and study of this life changing illness.
We can trace breast cancer all the way back to ancient Egypt. Because breast cancer is outwardly visible in its late stages, the Egyptians most certainly noticed it. Doctors deemed the case incurable and “cool to the touch, bulging, and spread all over the breast.” Ancient Greeks blamed this cancer on an imbalance of bodily fluid. Hippocrates even created the ‘wandering womb theory,’ in which he hypothesized that a woman’s uterus could move around the body, leaving behind health problems. Today, scientists no longer accept these theories, but we can thank the Greeks for making the first step in breast cancer discovery.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, exploration of the human body boomed, leading to a golden age for the emergence of surgery. Scientists also began to reconsider outdated theories. They replaced those old concepts with new ones, some of which are still practiced today. These new theories included treatments that promoted physical injury to the breast, blockages of lymph glands, and compression from tight clothing. Yet, despite their lack of knowledge concerning the causes of breast cancer, doctors performed a range of heroic surgeries in order to eradicate the disease from their patients.
By the nineteenth century, surgery flourished, thanks to discoveries that made the procedure safer. This allowed for a higher likelihood of beneficial outcomes for the patient. Necessary surgical procedures today, like disinfection, use of sterile gloves, and general anesthesia, made their debut during the 1800s. Additionally, microscopic identification of normal and cancerous cells led to new, alternative ways of treatment. William Halsted, a professor at John Hopkins, began performing radical mastectomies around 1880. He emphasized removing the breast tissue in one-piece, including the underlying muscle and lymph nodes. Such a surgery was necessary to prevent recurrence, but it left long-term pain and disabling effects. Radical mastectomies would remain the standard procedure until 1950. Still, despite the advancements in surgery and treatment, doctors remained clueless on the cause of cancer. Some suggested psychological reasons—one doctor theorized that the fear of cancer resulted in breast cancer—because of their hopelessness of the unknown.
Finally, after hundreds of years of uncertainty, twentieth century researchers saw a glimmer of hope: DNA. The discovery of DNA helped scientists understand the role of genetics in cancer. Modern treatment then emerged as a result of scientists establishing the relationship between cancer and genes. By viewing cancer as a localized disease, surgeons are now able to remove it before it spreads. Additionally, breast cancer diagnoses and treatments have been revolutionized through discoveries in medical radiation as a means of killing cancer cells, chemotherapy, and mammography. Lumpectomies, which remove only the cancerous tumor and any surrounding affected tissue, became a new option for women in the 1970s. In the 80s and 90s, thousands of women underwent high-dose bone marrow transplants, hoping it would increase their long-term survival rates; unfortunately, this plan backfired, and fifteen to twenty percent of these women died. Several years later, research demonstrated that hormonal replacement therapies could increase the risk of developing breast cancer. And in the late 90s, researchers associated certain variants of two genes with an eighty percent increase in breast cancer; in fact, this research has motivated women with the mutation take steps to reduce their risks.