Breast cancer has been recognized for much longer than people may realize, with instances of the disease recorded as long ago as 3,000–2,500 B.C., according to Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal.
“Because breast cancer is quite outwardly visible in its most advanced state (seldom reached today thanks to modern medicine) it frequently captured the vision and imagination of our ancestors enough for them to record it,” according to the Maurer Foundation.
A breast cancer diagnosis has gone from being a death sentence in ancient times to being one that required major surgery to being a disease with multifaceted treatment options today.
In Ancient Times
Although early cases are now recognized as cancer, the first reported instance of a breast tumor was in Queen Atossa of Persia (ancient Iran), who lived from approximately 550 to 475 B.C.E. "The Father of History” Herodotus wrote about her in “History of Herodotus,” saying Atossa had “a lesion of the breast … which was successfully treated by the Greek physician Democedes of Croton,” according to historian A.T. Sandison.
In ancient Greece, historians note the occurrence of people asking for divine help to treat “breast maladies,” according to the SQU medical journal. In about 400 B.C.E., Hippocrates, whose name is used in connection with ethical standards in medicine, theorized about “the imbalance of humours (blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile) as a cause of disease,” the journal says.
One theory about this imbalance was that it was caused by the end of menstruation leading to engorged blood in the chest, another that the imbalanced humors caused the accumulation of black bile in the breast. These ideas “led to attempts to purge and bleed or to restart menstruation with medicines, herbs, exercise, or hot baths,” according to “Women and Health in America.”
In the second century, Greek doctor Galen viewed cancer as incurable and saw intervention as harmful, according to the American Cancer Society. However, he wrote that if the tumor could be removed in the early stages, it was considered a surgical cure, although surgery had many complications including blood loss. Other early treatments included opium, castor oil, licorice, sulphur, salves, balms, cauterization and arsenic.
In China, the earliest mention of breast cancer was in 375 C.E., in the medical book “Urgent Therapeutic Prescription for Axilla Diseases” by Dr. Hong Ge. He wrote about “a lump, hard as a stone, with a form resembling a nucleon of drupe or a walnut,” according to an article in the Chinese Journal of Cancer.
Great strides were made after anesthesia became available, when John Collins Warren performed the first surgery with anesthesia Oct. 16, 1846. Rapid progress saw the first mastectomy in 1882, and Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898 would later be used in treatment. Surgery was eventually combined with radiation and chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. Another major advancement was the discovery that cancer was localized, meaning it could be removed before spreading.
Medical researchers also found better ways to detect cancer with mammograms, and treatment drugs were discovered throughout the 20th century. Scientists also made the connection between breast cancer and genes. As information about breast cancer spread, organizations dedicated to fighting it have been able to attract research dollars and further that fight.
Research continues into causes, reducing risk, managing abnormal cells in breast ducts, new lab tests, new imaging tests and treatment.
“Researchers around the world are working to find better ways to prevent, detect, and treat breast cancer, and to improve the quality of life of patients and survivors,” the American Cancer Society says.
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