Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer A Brief History

Content Brief history of breast cancer
Early discovery of breast cancer
Is Breast Cancer More Common Today?
Breast cancer research milestones
Beliefs about the cause of Breast Cancer
Natural Ancient Remedies For Breast Cancer


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women around the world. It has been widely studied throughout history. In fact, research on breast cancer has helped pave the way for breakthroughs in other types of cancer research.
How we treat breast cancer has changed in many ways from the cancer’s first discovery. But other findings and treatments have remained the same for years. 

cancer has probably been around as long as humans. Skeletal remains of a 2,700 year old Russian King and a 2,200 year old Egyptian mummy have both been diagnosed with prostate cancers.


Early discovery of breast cancer

Humans have known about breast cancer for a long time. For example, the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus describes cases of breast cancer. This medical text dates back to 3,000–2,500 B.C.E.

In ancient Greece, people made votive offerings in the shape of a breast to the god of medicine. And Hippocrates described the stages of breast cancer in the early 400s B.C.E.
In the first century A.D., doctors experimented with surgical incisions to destroy tumors. They also thought that breast cancer was linked with the end of menstruation. This theory may have prompted the association of cancer with older age.

Breast cancer can also be traced right back to ancient Egypt, with the earliest recorded case described on the 1600 BC Edwin Smith Papyrus. 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.

In the beginning of the Middle Ages, medical progress was linked with new religious philosophies. Christians thought surgery was barbaric and were in favor of faith healing. Meanwhile, Islamic doctors reviewed Greek medical texts to learn more about breast cancer.



You’ve probably heard people remarking how there seem to be many more cases of cancer around these days than there used to be. It is very hard to tell whether breast cancer is actually more common in today’s society, or whether our perception is skewed.

  • We have much better diagnostic capabilities today so more cases are identified.
  • Women used to have more children at a younger age and breastfed for longer, all factors which lower the risk of breast cancer
  • Up until the 19th century, people died younger. Breast cancer develops more amongst older women, so this increase in life expectancy could be skewing perceptions.
  • More women are “breast aware.” Nowadays, women are more likely to perform breast self-examinations and get mammograms if they suspect that something is wrong. Women are more likely to receive routine clinical breast examinations at their doctors’ office, inevitably meaning that more cases are identified.


Breast cancer research milestones

Our modern approach to breast cancer treatment and research started forming in the 19th century. Consider these milestones:

  • 1882: William Halsted performed the first radical mastectomy. This surgery will remain the standard operation to treat breast cancer until into the 20th century.
  • 1895: The first X-ray is taken. Eventually, low-dose X-rays called mammograms will be used to detect breast cancer.
  • 1898: Marie and Pierre Curie discover the radioactive elements radium and polonium. Shortly after, radium is used in cancer treatment.
  • 1932: A new approach to the mastectomy is developed. The surgical procedure is not as disfiguring and becomes the new standard.
  • 1937: Radiation therapy is used in addition to surgery to spare the breast. After removing the tumor, needles with radium are placed in the breast and near lymph nodes.
  • 1978: The drug tamoxifen is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in breast cancer treatment. Tamoxifen is an antiestrogen drug originally developed for birth control. It’s the first in a new class of drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) used against cancer.
  • 1984: Researchers discover a new gene in rats. The human version, called HER2, was found to be linked with more aggressive breast cancer when overexpressed. This cancer is called HER2-positive breast cancer and is not as responsive to treatments.
  • 1985: Researchers discover that women with early-stage breast cancer who were treated with a lumpectomy and radiation have similar survival rates to women treated with only a mastectomy.
  • 1986: Scientists figure out how to clone the HER2 gene.
  • 1995: Scientists can clone the tumor suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Inherited mutations in these genes can predict an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • 1996: FDA approves anastrozole as a treatment for breast cancer. This drug blocks the production of estrogen.
  • 1998: Tamoxifen is found to decrease the risk of developing breast cancer in at-risk women by 50 percent. It’s now approved by the FDA for use as a preventive therapy. Trastuzumab, a drug used to target cancer cells over-producing HER2, is also approved by the FDA.
  • 2006: The drug raloxifene is found to reduce breast cancer risk for postmenopausal women who have higher risk. The drug has a lower chance of serious side effects when compared with tamoxifen.


Beliefs about the cause of Breast Cancer

Throughout the ages, nobody has really been sure what causes breast cancer. Research still continues today.

Some of the earliest theories have long since fallen by the wayside. The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed that imbalances of bodily humors (fluids, especially black bile) were responsible for breast cancer.

But many other historic theories do still influence modern thought, with remnants of early beliefs left behind to form common breast cancer myths. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lots of possible causes of breast cancer were suggested:

  • physical injury to the breast
  • viral contagion
  • blockages of the lymph glands
  • repressed or over-indulged sexual urges
  • curdled milk left in the ducts
  • compression from tight clothing, which formed the basis of the bra myth

By the 19th century, the hopelessness of not knowing gave rise to a wave of psychological theories such as surgeon John Rodman’s bizarre suggestion that breast cancer was simply the fear of cancer.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century, with the discovery of DNA that scientists could finally begin to understand the role of genetics in breast cancer.


Natural Ancient Remedies For Breast Cancer

Early remedies for breast cancer were aimed at offering temporary relief or prolonging life rather than attempting to cure the disease. The Egyptian Edwin Smith Papyrus echoed a sentiment which lasted many centuries when it pronounced: “There is no treatment.” Surgery was therefore generally avoided as futile and various herbal medicines or ointments preferred.

Common treatments used throughout history when treating breast cancer include:

  • Purging of humors (Ancient Greece)
  • Prayers and rites to the Gods (Greeks and Egyptians)
  • Opium
  • Castor Oil
  • Licorice
  • Sulphur
  • Salves and Balms
  • Cauterization
  • Arsenic

21st century breast cancer treatments

Breast cancer treatment is becoming more personalized as doctors learn more about the disease. It’s now seen as a disease with subtypes that have different patterns and ways of acting on the body. The ability to isolate specific genes and classify breast cancer is the beginning of more tailored treatment options.

Special tests can also tell doctors more about breast cancer. For example, the Oncotype DX test can examine a part of the tumor to find out which genes are active in it. Doctors can use information about this group of genes to predict how a person’s cancer will respond to different treatments. Doctors can then decide on the best course of treatment for that person.

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