Breast cancer historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Mirdula Sharma, MBBS [2] Soroush Seifirad, M.D.[3]


Breast cancer was first described in the Egyptian literature. In 1976, mammography became officially recommended by the American cancer society for screening the breast cancer.

Historical Perspective


  • The oldest evidence of cancer is discovered in the Egyptian literature and dates back to about 3000 BC. The textbook is called the 'Edwin Smith Papyrus' and describes 8 cases of tumors of the breast which were removed by cauterization with a tool called the fire drill. The writing says about the disease, “There is no treatment”.[1]
  • In the 18th century, a wide variety of medical explanation was proposed, including a lack of sexual activity, too much sexual activity, physical injuries to the breast, curdled breast milk, and various forms of lymphatic blockages.[2][3]
  • In the 19th century, the Scottish surgeon John Rodman correlated the fear of cancer causing the cancer, accounting for breast cancer's tendency to run in families.[3]

Landmark events in the development of treatment strategies

  • Zacutus Lusitani (1575-1642) and Nicholas Tulp (1593-1674), from Holland, published their works in 1649, and 1652 respectively that concluded that breast cancer was contagious based on their observation of the tumor running in the members of the same household.[4]
  • The French surgeon Jean Louis Petit (1674–1750) and later the Scottish surgeon Benjamin Bell (1749–1806) were the first to remove the lymph nodes, breast tissue, and underlying chest muscle.[5]
  • In 1700s, John Hunter, the Scottish surgeon suggested that tumors grow from lymph constantly thrown out by the blood.[4]
  • In 1713, Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian physician, reported the relatively high incidence of breast cancer in nuns. This observation made it a clear association between breast cancer and role of hormones.
  • In 1719, Lorenz Heister, a German surgeon wrote about his ideas for mastectomy and lumpectomy in his book, Chirurgie.
  • In 1761, Giovanni Morgagni of Padua became the first to perform an autopsy to relate the illness to the pathology of the disease.
  • The Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) suggested that the tumor could be removed if it had not invaded nearby tissue and was 'moveable'.
  • In 1882, William Stewart Halsted, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University, came up with the radical mastectomy procedure.
  • In 1896, Thomas Beatson, a graduate from the University of Edinburgh, described the relationship between oophorectomy and breast cancer, which laid down the foundation of the hormonal therapy for the breast cancer.
  • In 19th century, Rudolf Virchow became the first to correlate the illness to microscopic pathology.
  • In 1920's, breast cancer staging systems were developed.[6]
  • The first case-control study on breast cancer epidemiology was done by Janet Lane-Claypon, who published a comparative study in 1926 of 500 breast cancer cases and 500 control patients of the same background and lifestyle for the British Ministry of Health.[7]
  • In the late 1960s, modern mammography methods were developed.[4]
  • Radical mastectomy remained the standard of care in America until the 1970s.
  • In the 1970s, modern clinical trials demonstrated that less extensive surgery is equally effective for most women with breast cancer.
  • In 1976, mammography became officially recommended by the American cancer society for screening the breast cancer.
  • In the 1990s, ''BRCA1'' and ''BRCA2'' genes were associated with development of breast cancer.
  • During the final decades of the 20th century, techniques were developed to minimizing the amount of normal tissue removed along with the tumor.
  • Modern chemotherapy developed after World War II.[8]
  • In late 1990s, first therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, trastuzumab (Herceptin) was approved for breast cancer.
  • The 1995 reports from the Nurses' Health Study and the 2002 conclusions of the Women's Health Initiative trial conclusively proved that hormone replacement therapy significantly increased the incidence of breast cancer.[9]

Cultural Reference

  • During 1930's and 1940's, The "Women's Field Army", run by the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now known as American Cancer Society was the first organized breast cancer campaign.[9]
  • In 1952, the first peer-to-peer support group, called "Reach to Recovery", began providing post-mastectomy, in-hospital visits from women who had survived breast cancer.[9]
  • In the fall of 1991, first known use of a pink ribbon in connection with breast cancer awareness was held, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed out pink ribbons to participants in its New York City race for breast cancer survivors.[10]
  • In 1992, the pink ribbon was adopted as the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.[11]


  1. "The History of Cancer". American Cancer Society. 2002-03-25. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
  2. Olson 2002, pp. 32–33
  3. 3.0 3.1 Aronowitz, Robert A. (2007). Unnatural history: breast cancer and American society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 22–24. ISBN 0-521-82249-1.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 The History of Cancer. American Cancer Society (2015) Accessed on January 23, 2016
  5. "History of Breast Cancer". Random History. 27 February 2008. Retrieved 8 May 2010.
  6. Olson 2002, pp. 102–6
  7. Alfredo Morabia (2004). A History of Epidemiologic Methods and Concepts. Boston: Birkhauser. pp. 301–302. ISBN 3-7643-6818-7. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
  8. Marc Lacroix (2011). A Concise History of Breast Cancer. USA: Nova Science Publishers. pp. 59–68. ISBN 978-1-61122-305-7.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Sulik, Gayle A. (2010). Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 200–3. ISBN 0-19-974045-3. OCLC 535493589.
  10. "Pretty in Pink". July 1998. Archived from the original on 18 December 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-02.
  11. Gayle A. Sulik (2010). Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 47–48. ISBN 0-19-974045-3. OCLC 535493589.

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