The History of Breast Cancer - Fighting the Most Common Cancer in Women

The history of breast cancer is a long and far too often tragic one. The earliest recorded cases of the disease date back to ancient Egypt. The three earliest documented cases arise from the famous Edwin Smith Papyrus, one of whom was a man. Breast cancer treatment began in the 18th century and is still being researched and developed to this day.

The earliest known medical document known to man is what is known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus.  Edwin Smith was an Egyptologist who bought fragments of the document in London in 1862.  Although he understood its importance he never published on it and the papyrus became all but forgotten.  In the 20th century this vastly important work was rediscovered.  Dating back to 1600 BC it is our first known medical writing.  Important to the history of breast cancer it also describes in writing the earliest known cases of the disease, one of which was a man.

In ancient Egypt the history of breast cancer treatment begins with cauterization of tumors found in the breast with an instrument known as "the fire drill."  Although medical practitioners are able to remove these tumors in some cases they are for the most part unable to stop the disease from taking its course.  Writes the ancient Egyptian doctor of breast cancer: "There is no treatment."

Such was the prevailing wisdom throughout the history of breast cancer.  Although cases of breast cancer are documented throughout history, it is not until the 17th century in Europe that medical understanding of the human body is able to begin to comprehend the nature of breast cancer.  European doctors linked the tumors in the breast to the lymph glands in the armpit.  In the early 18th century two extremely important figures in the history of breast cancer arise: Jean Louis Petit and Benjamin Bell who performed the first surgeries removing the lymph nodes, breast tissue and breast muscle in order to remove the cancer from the body and fight its spread.

This pioneering work was continued by the surgeon William Stewart Halsted who began performing complete mastectomies in 1882.  His procedure is known as the Halsted radical mastectomy and was popular throughout the 20th century up until the 1970's and is still common today.

Although doctors have been fighting breast cancer for centuries, it was not until the 20th century that movements to increase breast cancer awareness as well as cancer awareness in general began.  In 1952 the American Cancer Society created the Reach to Recovery program, one of the landmark programs in the history of breast cancer treatment and advocacy.  The Reach to Recovery program was a group of women helping women, where women would go visit patients in hospitals who had just had mastectomies for support.  This group continues its operations today.

In the 1970's the movement to increase breast cancer awareness began to grow rapidly.  More and more non-profit organizations, governmental organizations and other organizations have been formed in order to increase knowledge and awareness of this disease, but also to sponsor research to aid in its eradication.  While breast cancer survival rates have gone up somewhat in the last twenty years, the fact remains that this disease is still far too prevalent and killing far too many women.

Many great strides have been made in the history of breast cancer treatment but there is still a great amount of work to be done.  One in 12 or 13 women will suffer from breast cancer at some time during their lives in the western world.  In the United States these numbers can be even higher.  One of the most important aspects of the fight against breast cancer is breast cancer awareness.  The more knowledge known about the disease and the more done to check for early warning signs the better chance for survival.  Research and development continues to be done so that one day we can say the history of breast cancer is over.

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