Breast Cancer Discussion (May 1996)

Breast Cancer Bibliography and Comments

Query: From : Ellen Leopold 15 May 1996

I am interested in locating firsthand accounts (in correspondence, diaries) of women's experience of breat cancer, during any period up to about 1950. Though contemporary accounts have multiplied over the past two decades, it is hard to find earlier documentary evidence telling us how women coped with the disease in the three-quarters of a century before 1950 when the conspiracy of silence was absolute and radical mastectomies were the unchallenged order of the day. If you know of any leads at all, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Thank you.

Responses:       From:    Joann Castagna     15 May  1996

Fanny Burney (who was Jane Autin's favorite author) wrote about the operation that attempted to remove a tumor from her breast

  • this has become a rather well-known and discussed piece ( I think there was a piece in _Representations_ a few years ago, for instance.)I wonder if there aren't many somewhat coded references in earlier (that is 18th and 19th century) materials; it might be difficult to recognize what the topic of some discussions of illness might be!

From: Mary C. Lynn mcl@skidmore.EDU 15 May 1996

Look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman's autobiography _The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman_--she committed suicide sometime in the 1930s, suffering from advanced breast cancer. Also look at Helen Horowit's recent biography ofM. Carey Thomas, which discusses Thomas' mother's battle with breast cancer in 1887...Good luck!

From: Linda Rosenzweig

15 May 1996

John and Abigail Adams lost their only daughter to breast cancer. See the essay on this experience by James S. Olson, "Wounded and Presumed Dead: Dying of Breast Cancer in Early America," in Randy Roberts and James S. Olson,eds; _American Experiences: Readings in American History_(3rd ed; NY: HarperCollins College Publishers,1994) p.136-143. Olson cites several sources on the Adams family and also in an article that might be of interest: Bernard Fisher and Mark C. Gebhardt, "The Evolution of Breast Cancer Surgery: Past, Present ,and Future," _Seminars in Oncology, 5(December 1978): 385-94.

From: Veronia Strong-Boag 15 May 1996

In Canada, the poet and writer, E. Pauline Johnson, died of breast cancer in 1913. Biographis by Betty Keller and Marcus van Steen, more so the former, discuss some of the tratment and consequences for Johnson.

From: Susan Goulding 15 May 1996

I don't know if this would be helpful for you, since it concerns a woman in the 18 century, but Margaret Doody recounts Francis Burney's experience in her biography of Burney, _Frances Burney: A Life_(I think is the title.)

From: Beth Nelson 15 May 1996

This may be well outside of your time frame- but you might want to consider also looking at Mormon women in Utah who were affected by the atomic testing in the '40s and '50s. I know that they suffered from outrageously high rates of cancer--such as 16 year-old girls having to get hysterectomies because of uterine cancer--which was especially tragic considering the importance they[Mormons] placed on traditional gender roles. I don't know the literature on this, but you start with _America Ground Zero_ (I don't know the author off-hand, but it's a collection of interviews involved in the tests or who lived in the area), or essays by Terry Tempest Williams(whose Mormon female family members had really high rates of breast cancer-probably as a result of the tests.) It sounds like a great project!

From: Janice Durbin-Dodd 16 May 1996

This may be well out of the time period you're interested in, but Abigail Adams' daughter Nabby (Abigail Adams Smith) died of breast cancer in 1813. After consulting several physicians, including Benjamin Rush, Nabby Smith underwent a mastectomy in 1811, with opium as the anesthetic. Several of Adams' biographies deal with Nabby Smith's illness and death, because Adams was devastated by the death of her daughter. Hope this is of interest.

From: Janet Goldman

16 May 1996

Re: women and breast cancer: see Julia Epstein's biography of Fanny Burney.

From: Rebecca Copeland 16 May 1996

I don't imagine this is exactly what you had in mind, since it is not first-hand, but the Japanese author Ariyoshi Sawako wrote a fictional piece based on the Japanese doctor who is credited with developing anesthesia. He used it in what has been described the first surgery for breast cancer ever. The title of this story in its English translation is _The Doctor's Wife_.

From: Judith Mesa-Pelly 16 May 1996

Take a look at Chapter 11, "Bearing the Breast: Mastectomy and the Surgical Analogy" in Mary Jacobus' _First Things_(Routledge, 1995.)

From:     Justine Heazlewood        
      16 May 1996

I don't know whether you are interested in very early accounts but Fanny Burney, the late 18th/early 19th century English novelist wrote an account of her operation (carried on without anathestic!) to have a breast removed in Paris in, I think the early 19th century. She wrote about the operation in a letter to her sister.

From:            Theresa Kaminski 
       16 May 1996

For a good account of Abigail Adams Smith's breast cancer, see Edith Gelles' wonderful biography of Abagail adams, _Portia_. She has a chapter on the mother-daughter relationship.

From:             Ruth Linden       rrlinden@leland.Stanford.EDU
         16 May 1996

Although neither of the resources I have to suggest is about a 20th centur woman, Alice James developed breast cancer and wrote about it. Her letters and diaries have been published, but where I recall reading about her breast cancer is in her biography by Jean Strouse, published in the early 1980s, I believe. Also Edith Gelles wrote about Abagail Adams Smith's breast cancer in her biography of AA, published in about 1993, I believe. Good luck with your project.

From: Marian Neudel 16 May 1996

Re: breast cancer pre-1950--the Byzantine empress Theodois is known to have died from breast cancer(somewhere around 4xx C.E.)--we know this both from contemporary accounts, and,

I think, from archeological data.

From:           Vicki Modarresi          24 May 1996

American writer Mary Hunter Austin was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 1908. Refusing a mastectomy, she went to Europe to enjoy the time she had left, wound up spending time at an Italian convent where she learned their method of prayer, whioch she claimed cured her. (She finally died in 1934.) A self-proclaimed mystic, she writes about this--less directly than one might wish--in Book 5 of her autobiography, _Earth Horizon_.

Esther Lanigan Stineman discusses this in her Austin biography, _Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick_; I don't remember whether Augusta Fink does so in *her* Austin bio, _I, Mary_. Austin was an unconventional woman who challenged many other authorities beside that of the medical establishment.

From: IN%"" 31-MAY-1996 05:39:13.95

I am sorry it has taken me so long to read my email and respond to this message. This is a subject close to my heart and research interests.

You will find Katharine Coman's and Katharine Lee Bates's descriptions of Coman's fight and eventual loss to breast cancer exceptionally moving. Both were professors at Wellesley and lovers/partners for several decades (1880s to 1910s). Bates is now known chiefly for "America the Beautiful." After Coman died, Bates published a memorial book of poems titled "Yellow Clover." Unforgettable line: "My soul is among lions."

Several -- too many -- of Heterodoxy's members had cancer in the 1920s and 30s, but I don't know if it was always breast cancer. Letters between members remark upon it, especially founder Marie Jenney Howe's letters to Fola La Follette. Anne Van Vechten (Carl V.V.'s first wife, and lover of 14 years with Paula Jacobi of Heterodoxy) died a suicide by jumping from a Frankfort hospital window, but was terminally ill with cancer. Rose Pastor Stokes (also Heterodoxy) had the room next to Anne's, and died shortly after that summer of 1933). Mryan Louise Grant "died of the same disease," stated Howe. I can't see the cancers began as breast cancers, but will go back over my Heterodoxy files this summer and let you what I find.

When I worked in the early 1980s on a biographical database of several thousand Methodist women missionaries (almost all unmarried and childless), it seemed that those who died before age 60 seemed to "waste away." Was it TB, cancer, or what? (A footnote: an amazing number of them lived to hardy old age, and some of them could also have survived cancer. Quite a few married after child-bearing years, occasionally in their 70s, for the first and usually last time.) Also, we have numerous biographical, subject and organizational files at the Lesbian Herstory Archives on lesbians both living and dead who have fought and continue to fight this disease personally, professionally, and politically. We have also lost several of our volunteers, and count long-term survivors among those who have worked with us on preserving lesbian history.

Good luck with your research -- if I can help, please let me know.

Judith Schwarz^Z