Pink October – The History of Breast Cancer!

When a lot of remedies are suggested for a disease, that means it can’t be cured – Anton Chekhov 


Ever wondered who died of breast cancer first? How did this deadly disease come into attention? Who was one of those unfortunate lady who had to go through this pain when no one at all knew any such disease could exist?

Here is a little information I’ve got to share with you!

What does the word Cancer mean? 

The origin of the word cancer is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who is considered the “Father of Medicine.” Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumors. He postulated that the body consisted of four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile . As he described breast cancer as a humoral disease, he suggested that cancer was caused by the excess of black bile.  In appearance of the breast cancer too black, hard tumors are seen that burst forth if left untreated to yield a black fluid. He named it after “carcinos,” because the tumors seemed to have tentacles, like the legs of a crab. In Greek, these words refer to a crab, most likely applied to the disease because the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer called to mind the shape of a crab. The Roman physician, Celsus (28-50 BC), later translated the Greek term into cancer, which is the Latin word for crab. Galen (130-200 AD), another Roman physician, used the word oncos (Greek for swelling) to describe tumors. He also suggested excessive black bile but, unlike Hippocrates, he postulated that some tumors were more dangerous than others. He suggested medications like opium, castor oil, licorice, sulphur, salves etc. for medicinal therapy of the breast cancers. During this time of history breast cancer was a disease that affected the whole body and thus surgery was not considered. Although the crab analogy of Hippocrates and Celsus is still used to describe malignant tumors, Galen’s term is now used as a part of the name for cancer specialists — oncologists.

Ancient Egyptians were the first to note the disease more than 3,500 years ago. The condition was described fairly accurately in both Edwin Smith and George Ebers papyri. One of the descriptions refers to bulging tumors of the breast that has no cure. Growths suggestive of the bone cancer called osteosarcoma have been seen in mummies. Bony skull destruction as seen in cancer of the head and neck has been found, too.

Source: American Cancer Society

16th through 18th century:

During the Renaissance, beginning in the 15th century, scientists developed greater understanding of the human body. Scientists like Galileo and Newton began to use the scientific method, which later was used to study disease. Autopsies, done by Harvey (1628), led to an understanding of the circulation of blood through the heart and body that had until then been a mystery.

Until the 17th century Galen’s theories on breast cancer were believed. In 1680, French physician Francois de la Boe Sylvius began to challenge the humoral theory of cancer. He hypothesized that cancer did not come from an excess of black bile. He suggested it came from a chemical process that transformed lymphatic fluids from acidic to acrid. In 1713 Bernardino Ramazzini‘s developed a hypothesis that high frequency of breast cancer in nuns was due to lack of sex. Ramazzini said that without regular sexual activity, reproductive organs, including the breast may decay and develop cancers. Yet another researcher Friedrich Hoffman of Prussia postulated that women who had regular sex but still developed cancer were practicing “vigorous” sex. This could be leading to lymphatic blockage. In 1730s, Paris physician Claude-Deshais Gendron also rejected the systemic theory of Galen and said that cancer developed when nerve and glandular tissue mixed with lymph vessels.

It was in 1757 when Henri Le Dran, a leading French physician suggested that surgical removal of the tumor could help treat breast cancer, as long as infected lymph nodes of the armpits were removed. Claude-Nicolas Le Cat argued that surgical therapy was the only method to treat this cancer. This lasted well into the twentieth century and led to the creation of the radical mastectomy or extensive removal of the breast.

In 1761, Giovanni Morgagni of Padua was the first to do something which has become routine today — he did autopsies to relate the patient’s illness to pathologic findings after death. This laid the foundation for scientific oncology, the study of cancer.

The famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728−1793) suggested that some cancers might be cured by surgery and described how the surgeon might decide which cancers to operate on. If the tumor had not invaded nearby tissue and was “moveable,” he said, “There is no impropriety in removing it.”

Classic cancer operations such as, radical mastectomy were only developed a century after the discovery of a tumor because it was then when anesthesia was developed.

The 19th Century:

Rudolf Virchow, often called the founder of cellular pathology, provided the scientific basis for the modern pathologic study of cancer. As Morgagni had linked autopsy findings seen with the unaided eye with the clinical course of illness, so Virchow correlated microscopic pathology to illness. By mid-nineteenth century, surgery was the available option for breast cancer. The development of antiseptic, anesthesia and blood transfusion during this time also made survival after a surgery more possible. William Halstead of New York made radical breast surgery the gold standard for the next 100 years. He developed radical mastectomy that removed breast, axillary nodes (nodes in the armpits), and both chest muscles in a single en bloc procedure or in a single piece to prevent spread of the cancer while removing each of these individually.  Although radical mastectomy helped women survive longer, especially if performed early, many women did not choose it since it left them disfigured. In addition there were problems like a deformed chest wall, lymphedema or swelling in the arm due to lymph node removal and pain. In 1895, Scottish surgeon George Beatson discovered that removing the ovaries from one of his patients shrank her breast tumor. This reduction of the tumor after removal of the ovaries was due to the fact that estrogen from ovaries helped in growth of the tumor and their removal helped reduce the size of the tumor. This resulted in production of estrogen from the adrenal glands therefore, in 1952 Charles Huggins began removing a woman’s adrenal gland (adrenalectomy) in an effort to starve the tumor of estrogen. Rolf Lefft and Herbert Olivecrona began removing the pituitary gland – another site of estrogen production stimulation. 

Source: American Cancer Society



One response to “Pink October – The History of Breast Cancer!

  1. Pingback: World Cancer Day | WanderLust·

Share a thought!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s