The History of Breast Cancer

Despite what people may think, Breast Cancer has been around since ancient times and is not “a modern disease”. But the empowerment movement behind breast cancer survivors is a recent phenomenon. Unlike other cancers, cancers tumors found in the breasts are very visible. Many women, were embarrassed by it and were afraid to come forward with their illness. Now, we stand together as women and support research and overcoming this terrible disease.

Breast Cancer In Ancient Egypt and Greece

About 3,500 years ago, Ancient Egyptians indicated that there were bulging tumors of the breast for which there was no cure.

In 460 B.C, Hippocrates (for which doctor’s Hippocratic Oath is named), the Ancient Greek, made note of breast cancer as a “humoral disease.” Hippocrates believed that the body contained 4 humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Cancer was caused by too much black bile. Hippocrates came to this conclusion because when breast cancer tumors are left untreated they break through the skin releasing black fluid.

In AD 200, another Ancient Greek, Galen described cancer as well. He also believed that cancer was caused by black bile but noted that some tumors were more dangerous than others.

Breast Cancer in 17th and 18th Century

Galen was the leading physician on Breast Cancer until about the late 1600s. Francois de la Boe Sylvius challenged the reigning theory that black vile was the cause of cancer saying it was the fluid in the lymphatic system changing from acidic to acrid. Claude-Deshais Gendron also rejected the black vile theory and proposed that cancer was caused when nerve and glandular tissue mixed with lymph vessels.

One interesting theory presented in 1713 by Bernardino Ramazzini was the lack of sex caused breast cancer due to the high-frequency of women in the nunnery developing breast cancer. He believed that without regular sexual activity the sex organs develop cancer. Other interesting theories include curdled milk, puss inflammations, mental disorders, and not having children.

Finally, in 1757, Henri Le Dran removed the first breast cancer tumor. This became the standard treatment of breast cancer up until the 20th century.

Breast Cancer in the 19th and 20th Century

The development of antiseptic, anesthesia and blood transfusion allowed surgical removal of breast cancer to be performed. William Halstead of New York made breast surgery the gold standard for almost 100 years. He developed the mastectomy – a procedure that removed the breast, nodes in the armpits and chest muscles – which would hopefully prevent cancer from spreading.

In 1895, a Scottish surgeon George Beaston noticed that removing ovaries shrank a patient’s breast cancer. Soon women were having their breasts and ovaries removed. The theory was that estrogen was causing breast cancer. Soon women were having their adrenal gland and pituitary gland removed as well to help stop the production of “cancer-causing” estrogen.

Development Of The Systemic Theory

In 1955, George Crile suggested that cancer was not a localized disease and in fact spread throughout the body. Soon breast cancer was being treated with radiation or chemotherapy rather than being treated with mastectomies. Since then there have been several modern technological breakthroughs such as the development of mammograms, discovering of breast cancer causing genes and hormone treatments.