Breast Cancer: A History

So I know not everyone is as interested in history or the past as I am but I believe that part of awareness is knowledge and understanding what breast cancer is and how it effects us is key to being informed and active in the fight against it. In line with this I wanted to share a brief history of the cancer and how it has effected current treatment options as well as research.

Breast cancer has been with us for as long as we have recorded history. Because the later stages of it are so externally obvious ancient physicians were able to record it as a condition where many internal cancers would go unnoticed. Ancient Greek medicine believed in the Humors of the body and so suggest that the cancer came from an excess of black bile in the body. They named Cancer karkinos the Greek word for crab (this is why the astrological sign of the same name has a crab as a symbol) because the shape of the tumors reminded them of a crab.

In the 1600s and 1700s with the growth of the enlightenment movement and the beginnings of modern science, doctors began to look again at cancer and its causes. They noted that while the cancer was very rare (much more so than at current) it had a higher frequency in Nuns and so many believed that lack of sex could cause breast cancer. Still others thought it was related to depression or curdled milk (from not having children to nurse) or lack of child bearing in general. In 1757 surgery was suggested as a treatment to remove the cancer.

By the mid 19th century surgery was the only available treatment for breast cancer but developments in medicine such as antiseptics and anesthesia and blood transfusions made it so that woman were more likely to survive these surgeries which were excessive as they removed muscle as well as breast tissue. It was later discovered the removal of ovaries helped to shrink the tumors and so they were added to the list of things removed in these surgeries. (this is do to the fact that estrogen, made in the ovaries, helps to aid in cell growth though this was not understood at the time.) Later other estrogen production sites were removed as well the adrenal and pituitary glads.

In 1955 the cancers ability to metastasize or spread throughout the body was discovered, and chemotherapy was introduced in the 70s with much more conservative breast saving surgeries. by 1995 less than 10% of effected woman had a mastectomy, and many other treatments are being explored including hormone therapy and biological therapies. The Mammography helps to detect cancers early and we have isolated genes that can cause breast cancer.

Side Notes and Post Scripts: The reason nuns were more likely to get breast cancer and why the rate of  breast cancer has gone up in recent years is related to estrogen. In the past a woman would spend a large part of her adult life pregnant or nursing this reduced the number of menstrual cycles a woman would have. The rise and fall of estrogen in the body during a menstrual cycle encourages cellular growth and division increasing the chances one of those cells getting the right mutations to be a cancer.

Breast Self Exams have also had a bit of a controversial history because when they were introduced it was put upon woman to monitor their own heath and cancer patients were shamed if they allowed a lump to form. The back lash that emphasized compassion from doctors and clinical examinations as the front line detection with Self Breast Exams as a in between stop gap became the standard. However many still criticize the distribution of this information for failing to mention the need for regular exams by your doctor.


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