October 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first observed National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Since its inception in 1985, the month has grown to one where organizations of every kind — from non-profits like Susan B. Komen to corporations like the NFL — take time to recognize the need for continued research into this disease. Breast cancer affects people of all different races, ages, and genders. Although most commonly associated with women, about 1% of all new breast cancer cases are men.
Breast Cancer Before the 20th Century
The first recognition of breast cancer was 3,500 years ago, when ancient Egyptians first recorded the disease.
Theories about the causes fluctuated wildly for centuries. Physicians hypothesized that breast cancer was caused by everything from a sedentary lifestyle to curdled milk.
A major breakthrough occurred in the middle of the 18th century when French physicians came to understand that the cancer could be removed by via surgery. This however led to a long period of time where the removal of the entire breast and part of the chest muscles was the treatment for a breast cancer diagnosis. This procedure was known as a Halsted Mastectomy.
Developments in Breast Cancer Treatment Throughout the 20th Century & Beyond
When the link between smaller tumor size and the removal of estrogen producing organs was discovered around the 1950s, pituitary glands, ovaries, and the adrenal gland were sometimes also removed. This practice happened through the middle of the 20th century.
Bernard Fisher spurred another major breakthrough in breast cancer treatment in the 1970s by sharing research that a lumpectomy and subsequent chemotherapy or radiation could lead to the same results as a radical mastectomy. Adoption of this practice prevented the disfigurement that came with the mastectomies of previous years and it was very effective to the point where, by the mid 1990’s, breast cancer statistics showed that less than 10% of breast cancer was treated with a mastectomy.
Today, common breast cancer treatments can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and anti-estrogen therapy to name a few. Because it is now understood that cancer is not just one type of cell, effective treatment may call for a mix of these different therapies unique to each person’s needs.
The Importance of Mammograms
Another important milestone of the treatment of breast cancer was when, in 1976, the American Cancer Society first started recommending mammography for early detection of the cancer in women. Regular mammograms and self-exams can result in catching cancer development in an early stage, while survival rates are high.
Many people are aware that chances of having breast cancer in a person’s lifetime increases (almost doubles) if they have a first degree relative with the disease, but screening for everyone is important as statistics of breast cancer show that nearly 85% of new cases have no breast cancer history in their families. Additionally person’s age can affect the severity of the disease, breast cancer in elderly women (55 and older) is more likely to be invasive than it is in younger women.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the disease and it no longer guarantees a death sentence or even a radical mastectomy. Today there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. thanks to increased awareness, screening and better treatment options than ever before.