Breast cancer is, unsurprisingly, basically as old as humanity itself. And we've known about it for a very long time: the ancient Egyptians mention it in medical papyruses, though it wasn't until 1757 that the French physician Henri Le Dran recommended mastectomies and lymph node removal as an effective treatment. Many famous women throughout history suffered through breast cancer, but a large proportion of them either died without aid or survived through sheer dumb luck.
The list of notable breast cancer sufferers in history is long and illustrious, including everybody from queens to musicians, writers, and scientists. And everybody from Cynthia Nixon to Dame Maggie Smith's had a dose of it these days (and let's not even bother to mention Angelina Jolie).
But it wasn't always so visible or so survivable. These days, up to 95 percent of women will survive breast cancer, provided they're detected and get treatment, but for centuries it was a mysterious ailment with no real cure and a very high death rate. Galen himself, one of the great medical authorities of ancient Greece, thought that once breast cancer was diagnosed, there was no hope. Thank heaven things are a little different these days.
1. Empress Theodora Of Constantinople
Theodora was a badass — no matter how you put it. A commoner who became Queen of the Byzantine Empire (and was constantly badmouthed by people who alleged she'd been a prostitute before her stint in the spotlight), she ruled for several decades in the 6th century, until 548, when she discovered a lump in her breast.
It's alleged that her court physician, Aetios of Amida, decided that an operation was the only answer — but in those days, that would have been risky and done without anesthetic. So Theodora chose to go without surgical intervention, and died later the same year.
2. Fanny Burney
The earliest ever first-person account of a mastectomy comes from writer Fanny Burney — and it's not one to read unless you have a very strong stomach, because it wasn't done in a hospital, but in her own apartment. Without pain relief.
She wrote about the operation, which happened on September 30 1811, with complete, gut-wrenching honesty. Seven doctors held her down and covered her face while they excised the entirety of her breast. “Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast — cutting through veins — arteries — flesh — nerves — I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision — and I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony," she wrote. She went on to live another 29 years.
3. Queen Anne Of Austria
Queen Anne (1601-1666) was a political mover and shaker who struggled with the French court of Louis XIII, her husband, and ruled France as regent after his death in 1643. But her struggle with breast cancer was what eventually caused her death — even though, at the time, breast cancer was known as "the nun's disease" and thought to result from insufficient sexin'. (No, really.)
She survived from the initial diagnosis in 1663 to 1666, but went through some thoroughly medieval treatments to get that far, going through regular blood-letting, surgery without pain relief, and poultices saturated with arsenic. The much-weakened queen finally passed away after three years of suffering.
4. Alice James
Alice James was the diarist sister of William and Henry James, and her diaries provide a witty and feminist insight into the life of an intelligent woman suffering from mental illness (which, this being the Victorian era, was diagnosed as "hysteria"). But she also went through breast cancer, and we know from her work and the letters of her brothers just what that meant at the time.
Before her death in 1892, James wrote despairingly of “this unholy granite substance in my breast," and correspondence from her brother indicates that she had been declared inoperable and given huge amounts of opium to dull the pain. "Take all the morphia ... you want," William James wrote to her, "What was opium created for but times such as this?"
5. Mary Anning
Mary Anning was one of the first palaeontologists in the world, discovering hugely important dinosaur bones and remains in her home county of Dorset, Britain throughout her life. We don't know much about her breast cancer experience, but we do know that it eventually killed her at the age of 47, in 1847.
Anning was such a prominent scientist that, when her diagnosis came in 1846, the Geological Society of London (of whom she was the first female member) gave her a grant for treatment. The treatment at the time was pain relief, involving huge amounts of laudanum, a type of opium. The pain was so excruciating that Anning apparently took enough opium for her neighbors to believe she'd become a drunk.
6. Mary Washington (George Washington's Mother)
Mary Washington's name is associated with breast cancer across the United States; Mary Washington Healthcare is a not-for-profit group of hospitals and healthcare centers focussing on cancer treatment. Mary Washington herself was diagnosed in 1787, but after two years the famous doctor Benjamin Rush brutally assessed that there was no hope whatsoever. "It is not in my power to suggest a cure for the disorder you have found in her breast," he told her family.
Her daughter Betty wrote to George before her death in 1789, “I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad. God only knows how it will end ... she is sensible of it and perfectly resigned — wishes for nothing more than to keep it easy.” (In a sad coincidence, Elizabeth Edwards, the partner of politician John Edwards who famously died of breast cancer in 2010, attended Mary Washington College.)
7. Queen Atossa Of Persia
We know about Queen Atossa, an ancient Persian queen married to her brother Cyrus, because of the Greek historian Herodotus. And part of what we know about her is how she dealt with a bleeding lump on her breast. Surprise: it wasn't very pretty.
According to Herodotus, Atossa discovered said bleeding lump, which may have been cancer or some kind of serous ulcer (we're not sure), and allowed Democedes, a Greek physician in her husband's court, to operate and remove it, presumably with a knife. It must have been painful as hell — but Atossa apparently survived.
Images: Wikimedia Commons