Dying of Breast Cancer in the 1800s

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Breast cancer is a disease that devastates so many women in our society each year. The catastrophic toll that it had on women in the 1800’s was much more traumatizing than it is today. Robert Shadle and James S. Olson give us a vivid picture of what breast cancer in the 1800’s was like in their essay entitled, “Dying of Breast Cancer in the 1800s.” The authors of this incredible essay describe the life of “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail Adams. The essay gives us a detailed account from the beginning to the end of Nabby’s fight with cancer.

Nabby and Colonel William Smith were married in June of 1786 and they would go on to later have three children. Colonel Smith was not one to settle down, moving from America to London, from London back to America, spending entirely too much money that he did not have. In the year of 1808 Nabby found a small dimple on her breast that she thought was probably just the sign of old age. It turns out that that dimple was actually a malignant tumor rapidly spreading throughout her body. In the year of 1809 Nabby noticed that the “old age” dimple had turned into a solid lump hidden in her breast and as time went on the lump slowly grew in size. Nabby went from physician to physician consulting them on what to do, and none of the remedies seemed to work. So in 1811 Nabby returned to Quincy, Massachusetts where her parents resided and contacted Dr. Benjamin Rush, a family friend and a famous skilled physician. Dr. Rush advised Nabby to have surgery immediately. Nabby consented to the idea although she was rather timid.

Surgery in these days was not the same as it is today. Today there is a vast amount of research that goes into each particular surgery; in those days it was the complete opposite. Today we have sanitation procedures, while back then they did not know anything about sanitation! And the biggest difference in surgeries between the two time periods is the use of anesthesia. In the 1800’s the use of...
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