A look back at the breast

Pink ribbons, pink Susan G. Komen kitchenware, and 5 hour energy pink lemonade. The only colors we used to associate with October were orange and black, but now pink (in the best way) has taken over. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere this month and not see a form of breast cancer awareness. Even though we’re still “racing for a cure,” I think it is important to look back and see how far we’ve come.

Did you know that back in Ancient Egypt before 1000 AD, when they observed a form of breast cancer, it was common practice to cauterize the infected tissue? While some form of cauterization may always be used to remove unwanted growths, it was no match for cancer cells. Fortunately, since then we’ve found alternative methods.

Prior to the 19th century, most people did not live long enough to noticeably develop breast cancer. Once improvements were made in sanitation, the increased occurrences of breast cancer began to draw attention. The first successful treatment of breast cancer was achieved by surgeons Jean Louis Petit and Benjamin Bell, who chose to surgically remove lymph nodes, breast tissue, and chest muscle. In the 1880s, another surgeon by the name of Halsted, piggy-backed on that idea and began performing mastectomies. Although most patients had long-term pain after the procedure, the invention of the mastectomy raised the survival rate from 10 percent to 50 percent.

First Mastectomy

This treatment continued until the 1970s, when the removal of just the cancerous tumor (known as a lumpectomy) became more popular. By 1985, research proved that a lumpectomy combined with radiation was just as effective as a mastectomy, without the impingement.

In the past twenty years, researchers have made leaps and bounds. With ongoing studies looking at similarities between not only patient reactions, but also potential risk factors. Since doctors have discovered that the cancer affects the entire body (not just the infected area), treatments have appropriately evolved. This has resulted in chemotherapy, pills, and now even some preemptive treatments to replace any harmful genes. Treatment is more customized than ever before, focusing on the genetic makeup of the individualized patient.


As it stands, 1 out of 7 women develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Thankfully, diagnosis is not a death sentence like it was in Ancient Egypt. Each patient diagnosed has millions of people indirectly (and some directly) supporting them throughout their treatment. It’s only a matter of time before a cure is found.

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