The History of Breast Cancer

September 27 • 2017

The History of Breast Cancer

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, alongside the ‘Race for the Cure’ initiatives and pink ribbons, we’d like to take a closer look at this devastating disease. What do we know? Where did it come from? What can you do to protect yourself? Let’s take a look.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Americans; second only to heart disease. Among 100 types of cancer, breast cancer ranks as the third deadliest form and the second most commonly found in women. Breast cancer occurs when cells grow at a rapid, uncontrollable rate and develop into malignant tumors. Often times, these cells metastasize and infiltrate through the surrounding tissue of the breast; gaining access to the rest of the body.  Despite the disease’s aggression and daunting factors, modern medicine has come a long way in terms of diagnosis as well as methods of treatment. But where did breast cancer begin?

Breast cancer has been mentioned since ancient times and references to it can be found throughout nearly every historical period. Egyptians were the first to record the disease more than 3,500 years ago. These earlier accounts depicted aggressive tumors and protruding masses from breasts. Consequently, breast cancer during this era was deemed taboo; making detection and diagnosis next to impossible.

Physicians, such as Hippocrates and Galen, hypothesized breast cancer was humoral and derived from black bile. Others believed it derived from lack of sex, curdled milk in the milk ducts, childlessness, sedentary lifestyles, or a horde of other asinine hypotheses. The earliest form of medicinal treatment consisted of opium, castor oil, licorice, sulfur, and salves.

The first suggestion of radical surgery appeared as early as 1757 by the French physician, Henri Francois Le Dran. He believed by removing the tumor tissue along with the infected lymph-nodes near the armpits, he could effectively treat the cancer. This was the earliest form of mastectomy. Later, it would include the removal of the breast, auxiliary nodes (nodes in the armpits), and both chest muscles. By the mid-nineteenth century, anesthesia, antiseptic, and blood transfusions had advanced far enough to increase patient survival rates during surgery.

While this was a huge advancement and progress had been achieved in treating the disease, many women declined the mastectomy. Why? Due to how it led to many difficulties such as deforming the chest wall, lymphedema (swelling in the arm due to lymph node extraction), as well as extreme pain and other complications.

After more research, further studies, and multiple trials, Scottish surgeon, George Beatson performed his first oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) on a breast cancer patient in 1895. He then correlated the surgery with the drastic shrinkage of her breast tumor. His hypothesis was that estrogen produced by the ovaries encouraged the growth of the tumors found in her breast. Many surgeons began to subscribe to Beatson’s postulation and began to perform oophorectomies as well as mastectomies on breast cancer patients. However, patients whose ovaries had been removed found little to no relief, as estrogen was also found in their adrenal glands. This led to even more drastic measures when in 1952 procedures to remove the adrenal glands on patients who did not have ovaries, began to rise. Other physicians then began to remove other estrogen produced centers, such as the pituitary gland. 3 years later, American journalist, George Crile, suggested cancer was not localized and could actually move throughout the body. Replacing Beatson’s theory and putting an end to radical procedures.

In 1976, American scientist, Bernard Fisher, became an advocate for simpler breast-conserving procedures. He also pushed for radiation and/or chemotherapy to be used as a form of treatment over mastectomies. By 1995, the number of breast cancer patients receiving mastectomies decreased to less than 10 percent. As we entered a new era of innovation, more treatments were created and utilized such as hormone treatments, lesser-invasive surgeries, biological therapies, and mammography for early detection.

The support to find a cure, as well as the support for survivors and those who suffer from the metastatic form of breast cancer, has increased over the years through funding and awareness. Additionally, advancement in technology has also helped in the assistance of early detection, such as digital mammography and 3D Mammography. While it’s the newest form of detection, 3D Mammography also drastically increases the accuracy of reporting clearer results and fewer invasive biopsies. Subsequently, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Aylo Health is giving all patients who receive a mammogram during the month of October a free 3D upgrade!

According to the Mayo Clinic, women 40 years of age or older are highly recommended to have an annual mammogram. If you have not had your annual mammogram yet we would be happy to get yours scheduled. Contact your nearest Aylo Health office or visit our website to schedule your mammogram online. It’s not just the best preventive measure. Mammograms also provide a priceless sense of peace of mind.

Where does this leave us? From invasive and deforming surgeries to preventive procedures that inflict little to no pain, the future is bright for breast cancer patients. Every day we inch closer to a cure through rapidly progressing research and promising medical trials. Until then, the utilization of today’s latest technology, like mammography (self and digital), will assist us all in early detection and treatment—ultimately saving lives. So maybe, even within our lifetime, we can write the final chapter to the history of breast cancer.