Historical Aspects

A Darker Ribbon: A Twentieth-Century Story of Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors by Ellen Leopold (Beacon Press, 2000).

Why did it take most of the twentieth century for breast cancer to move from being viewed as a disease that affected women to a woman’s disease? How do we explain the stubborn reluctance of American women to understand breast cancer as a feminist issue? Leopold’s answers to these questions by tracing the evolution of breast cancer from a private to a public entity and illustrates generational changes in doctor-patient interactions through the unpublished correspondence between two women and their doctors: patient Barbara Mueller and Dr. William Halstead (developer of the radical mastectomy) and patient Rachel Carson and Dr. George Crile Jr. (a surgeon who used a less radical procedure.)

Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History by James Olson (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

In 1967, an Italian surgeon on a museum tour stopped in front of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath and noticed an asymmetry to Bathsheba’s left breast; it seemed distended, swollen near the armpit, discolored, and marked with distinctive pitting. The physician later learned that Rembrandt’s model died after a long illness. He conjectured in an article for an Italian medical journal that the cause of her death was breast cancer. Olson provides narratives such as these of prominent women through the ages, including Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV; Mary Washington, mother of George; environmentalist Rachel Carson; and others. Olson chronicles politics and economics, the evolution of research, gender dynamics of women patients and men physicians, and patient activism.

Breasts — A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (W.W.Norton & Co., 2012).

Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting new chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. Science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of anthropology, biology, and medicine. Her investigation follows the life cycle of the breast from puberty to pregnancy to menopause, taking her from a plastic surgeon’s office where she learns about cup size in Texas to the laboratory where she discovers environmental toxins in her own breast milk. The result is an exploration of where breasts came from, where they ended up, and what we can do to save them. Read a Breast Cancer Consortium Review»

The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in 20th Century America by Barron H. Lerner, MD (Oxford Press, 2001).

Writing with insight and compassion Barron Lerner tells a compelling story of influential surgeons, anxious patients and committed activists in a century-long war on breast cancer. He gives portraits of leading figures ranging from Dr. William Halsted, who pioneered the disfiguring radical mastectomy at the turn of the century to Rose Kushner, a journalist who educated American women about breast cancer. Lerner describes the insistent efforts of physicians to vanquish the “enemy,” the efforts of feminists to combat a paternalistic legacy that silenced patients, and the struggles of statisticians and researchers to generate definitive data in the face of the great risks and uncertainties. The paperback edition includes a postscript that discusses the already growing controversy surrounding screening mammograms.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner, 2011).

Assistant professor of medicine and cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center, Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out “war against cancer.” This is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Cancer is not something from the outside but something that is part of the inner workings of the human ecosystem. The long history of science in understanding cancer is, according to Mukherjee, just as likely to have a long future. The Emperor of All Maladies won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction.

Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society by Robert Aronowitz (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

In the early nineteenth century in the U.S., cancer in the breast was a rare disease. Now it seems to be everywhere. Written by a medical historian who is also a doctor, Unnatural History tells how and why this happened. The book traces changing definitions and understandings of breast cancer, the experiences of people diagnosed with breast cancer, changing clinical and public health practices, and individual and societal fears that impact decision-making. Rather than there simply being more disease, Aronowitz argues that the epidemic proportions of breast cancer incidence may also result from how we have detected, labeled, and responded to the disease. It is a solid account of what has, and has not changed in the knowledge and understanding of breast cancer over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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