Extraordinary Women: A Personal Look at Breast Cancer

My mother and me at my graduation from Oxford University in 2009

I am sitting here in the surgical waiting room at Northwest Community Hospital, just outside of Chicago. Florescent lights hum overhead while visitors flip casually through month-old magazines. At one point, a group of tittering young women breeze by clutching congratulatory balloons on their way to the maternity ward. The clock ticks in the background, persistent and unrelenting.

It is 2:48 pm, and at this very moment, my mother is undergoing a double mastectomy for breast cancer.

Cancer.

Until recently, the word was merely an abstraction. Cancer arose in conversation as a nameless statistic; an anecdotal story about a friend of a friend of a friend; a scribble in a surgeon’s notebook from the past.

Cancer was someone else’s nightmare, someone else’s pain.

Now, quite unexpectedly and intrusively, it has become a part of my own life’s story.

As a medical historian, I am comforted by the knowledge that none of us are alone in our struggles against disease. And so that got me thinking about breast cancer, and the countless women from earlier periods who underwent mastectomies without anaesthetic. Who were these brave women, and where did they gather their strength from?

It may come as a surprise to readers that physicians and surgeons have been diagnosing women with breast cancer for thousands of years, and performing mastectomies for nearly as many. In the 1st century A.D., the surgeon, Leonidas from Alexandria,  described his technique for removing the breast which involved alternately cutting and cauterising the tissue with hot irons. During the Middle Ages, many surgeons began using a caustic paste which contained corrosive ingredients such as zinc chloride and stibnite. When applied directly to the breast, it would cause the tissue to undergo a rapid necrosis, making it easier to remove.

This, too, had its risks, and for the most part, surgeons continued to remove the breast without the aid of caustics in the following centuries. Each surgeon had his own technique for doing this, ranging from ‘impalement of the breast with needles and ropes for traction followed by swift amputation through the base’, to incising the skin and removing the tumour by hand. [1] The surgery was typically carried out in the patient’s home, and could take hours. After the procedure, the wound was often left open to reduce the risk of infection.

All this was done without anaesthetic.

Asa and Lucy Thurston, c.1848

But what of the women themselves? Those poor creatures who lived and died at the mercy of the surgeon’s knife? Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how they felt as women are often voiceless in the surgical casebooks which I study.

Occasionally, however, I come across a letter or diary belonging to a survivor. One particular letter stands out in my memory as I sit here waiting for my own mother to come out of surgery.

In September, 1855, Lucy Thurston—a 60-year-old missionary living in Hawaii—underwent a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. A month later, she wrote to her daughter, Mary, about the terrifying ordeal. She describes feeling ‘depraved, diseased [and] helpless’ before the operation. When the surgeon finally arrived, he ‘looked me full in the face, and with great firmness asked: “Have you made up your mind to have it cut out?”’ The letter continues:

[The surgeon] opened his hand that I might see [the knife], saying, “I am going to begin now.” Then came a gash long and deep, first on one side of my breast, then on the other. Deep sickness seized me, and deprived me of my breakfast. This was followed by extreme faintness. My sufferings were no longer local. There was a general feeling of agony throughout the whole system. I felt, every inch of me, as though flesh was failing….I myself fully intended to have seen the thing done. But on recollection, every glimpse I happened to have, was the doctor’s right hand completely covered with blood, up to the very wrist. He afterwards told me, that at one time the blood from an artery flew into his eyes, so that he could not see. It was nearly an hour and a half that I was beneath his hand, in cutting out the entire breast, in cutting out the glands beneath the arm, in tying the arteries, in absorbing the blood, in sewing up the wound, in putting on the adhesive plasters, and in applying the bandage. [2]

As hard as it is to imagine, Lucy Thurston survived the horrific event and lived for another 21 years after her mastectomy.

And so history is full of such stories…some lost to time but no less real. It is this lineage which my mother is about to enter. A sisterhood of sufferers. A sisterhood of survivors.

It is now 3:58 pm, and I have 1 more hour before my mother is out of surgery.

Then, a new life begins: one shaped by cancer but not ruled by it.

1. William L. Donegan, Breast Cancer, 2nd edn. (2006), p. 6.
2. Anon., Life and Times, of Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston: Wife of Rev. Asa Thurston, Pioneer Missionary to the Sandwich Islands, Gathered from Letters and Journals of Extending Over a Period of More Than Fifty Years (1923; repr. 2010).

33 comments on “Extraordinary Women: A Personal Look at Breast Cancer

  1. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: Extraordinary Women: A Personal Look at Breast Cancer […]

  2. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    Hi Lindsay sorry to read about your 1ststill grade teacher. Thoughts & prays coming your way. How’s your mother doing now?

  3. Susan Johnson says:

    Lindsay — I just sent you an e-mail on this very subject, and here is the historical information I was seeking. I’m also pleased to see from the notes that your mother is doing well. We are blessed to live in such enlightened times, with pain killers and anesthetic and reconstructive surgery. My best to you both, and to her continued recovery.

    • Thanks Susan! My mom is doing really well. She’s chosen not to have reconstructive surgery at this time, but is very happy with that decision. We are, indeed, lucky to live in the 21st century. I got your email and will try to respond shortly!

  4. JCF says:

    I hope all has gone well for your mother in her recovery. Prayers!

  5. Tell your sweet mama that good thoughts & best wishes are coming her way from Texas. I got an infection, too, after my mastectomy and while it’s all sorted out now, it was an epic mess. I say this not to scare you or your mom but to provide proof that while it was even worse than the cancer, I got through it and she will too.

  6. Acacia says:

    Reblogged this on Pink Goose and commented:
    This is a tough read, but also a testament to some tough women.

  7. idlivru says:

    Lindsey you and your mom are in my prayers. My sister is a 16 and a half survivor of breast cancer found on her baseline mammogram at 41 and a half. She had a mastectomy and reconstruction and did not need chemo or rradiation

    Risa

  8. idlivru says:

    I am sorry to hear your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. But with the advances in medicine she should survive a long time. My sister is a 16 and a half year survivor of breast cancer. found on her baseline mammogram at the age of 41 and a half. You and your mom are in my prayers

    • Thank you so much – it is always heartening to hear of others’ stories. My mother’s surgery went very well and as of now, she is cancer free. The tumour was small, and has a low chance of recurrence so she does not need to undergo chemo. She just needs to be on drug therapy for 10 years. We are very optimistic!

      Glad to hear your sister is strong and well today!

  9. Fiz says:

    Lindsey, my mother has breast cancer which seems to be under control. I follow you on Twitter as FizzieLou and I just want to say that you and your mother are in my thoughts and prayers.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. She is on the road to recovery, although she is battling an infection brought on by the surgery at the moment. It is a difficult time but it is always good to hear from those who have been through it and come out the better for it 🙂 Thanks for following the blog!

  10. stilesroad says:

    Reblogged this on bothar na strapai and commented:
    I enjoy the posts on The Chirurgeon’sApprentice Blog…

  11. stilesroad says:

    The saddest thing I experienced on this subject was – while chatting with a middle aged woman in a village I used to live in – she told me that she was depressed because her husband would not have sex with her since she had a radical mastectomy. I hadn’t a clue what to say in response; she told me the situation so bluntly and without emotion that I was flummoxed. I didn’t want to say ” Well, I’d still want to make love to my wife if she had had a mastectomy” as it seemed jejune and unhelpful. I hadn’t a clue what would be helpful except to just nod gravely at the revelation and mumble “Shame…” Years later I still do not know what I could have said to her to thank her for the brave intimacy nor what to say to show my understanding – nor even to say how cruel and unfounded I found the story. I half wanted to tell her to leave the fucker. Tell her to drag him to a psychologist. Sex therapist, whatever. However, I said nothing then and even now I have nothing to say except that in my imagination I can see myself lying against my wife after her mastectomy (she’s not actually had one…) and kissing her all over the scarring and telling her with deep mouth kisses how much I still loved her and revered her body and soul. Fucking useless for that poor woman …

    • Ali says:

      Wow. You, sir, are a wonderful example of a man. Your wife must smile every day you are by her side.

    • Acacia says:

      I am ever-thankful to have married my husband. I only had a lumpectomy and after I’d healed, he was just as you described. I felt loved and beautiful and secure. Very different from my poor aunt twenty years ago whose husband said she wasn’t a woman anymore without her breasts.

      Your wife made a wise choice marrying you!

  12. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April last year, following my first routine mammogram in March. Since then, I have been under the care of Mr Linforth and the Specialist breast care teams at St Lukes/BRI and St James, Leeds. I just wanted to say thank you and to say how much I appreciate the excellent care I’ve had from everybody involved in looking after me. All the doctors and their individual temas have treated me with the utmost kindness and nothing has been too much trouble for them. Its terrifying when something like this happens to you, but knowing you’ve got such a good medical team of people looking after you, doing their best for you, but who are all so lovely as well makes all the difference! Everybody has been great and I would just like to say a special thank you to my Breast Care Nurse Kath Hodgson.

  13. The novelist Fanny Burney left a detailed account of the three hour and forty-five minute operation she underwent without anesthetic in 1811, at the age of fifty-nine. She lived for a further 29 years. The full text of the letter can be read in this blog entry: http://newjacksonianblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/breast-cancer-in-1811-fanny-burneys.html

  14. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice narrates a personal experience with breast cancer: […]

  15. Amy says:

    My mother has also had a mastectomy and your description of a life that suddenly contained cancer resonated deeply with me. She is now fully recovered, but it was a very difficult time for her and for our family. I cannot imagine how much worse it would have been if there had been no anesthetic during the surgery. Thank you for this post, my thoughts and best wishes are with your mother.

  16. Tessa Harris says:

    What a deeply moving post. Thank you. One of our oldest and dearest friends underwent surgery for a tumor this week, too, so it was all the more poignant for me. I do hope your mother continues to enjoy life.

  17. Alyssa says:

    Lovely Lins. Just lovely. Honoring your mom, Ms Lucy Thurston and every single woman that has gone through (or will go through) this experience with such words is incredible. Your quote rings true for cancer fighters / survivors everywhere. I was at work playing MJ over and over (from his Invincible soundtrack) on my iphone during her surgery. 🙂 Not a waking minute went by today without thinking of her, you, GMA, Chris, the whole family.

  18. Sharon Diesing says:

    Lindsey, fabulous post. Uncle Jim and I are keeping your mom, you, Chris and your grandma in our thoughts. I’m sure it’s a great comfort for her to have you there and a comfort for you to be close. Much love.

  19. nightsmusic says:

    Oh, Lindsey! I do pray everything went well, the doctor’s hands were gifted and guided and the prognosis is excellent. Please, when you can, let us know how things are going.

    And this!

    “a new life begins: one shaped by cancer but not ruled by it”

    THAT is the quote that should be on any survivor’s shirt, mug, label, bumper sticker, FOREHEAD! I agree. Best quote I’ve ever read.

    • Thank you so much. It was one of the quickest posts I’ve written, and so I was not sure if I should publish it or do a bit more research. It’s heartening to know it resonated with so many people. My mother came through the surgery well and preliminarily, it looks like the cancer did not spread to the lymph nodes, although we are waiting on the pathology results.

  20. Sharon Langley says:

    Lindsey, You are a good daughter to come home and be by her side .. My thoughts are with you, your mom, and grandma.

    sharon langley

  21. jeff golob says:

    my thoughts and prayers are with you both. As always one of your biggest supporters. ” a new life begins: one shaped by cancer but not ruled by it.” greatest quote I have read! Better than a T-shirt of a Cancer survivor! x0x0x mr g

  22. Diane Pfeifer says:

    Excellent post, Lindsey – I have been thinking of all of you this afternoon.

  23. Laurie Brown says:

    My best wishes to your mother and to you. I hope it all goes smoothly and they get it all.

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