Q&A: How Was Breast Cancer Treated in the 16th Century?

02 Sep

Q: I am currently writing a novel set in the 16th century. Can you tell me what symptoms a young woman, in her mid to late 20s, with breast cancer, would have experienced in this era where modern treatments were unknown? Also, if you know of anything that might have been done to ease her pain, that would be helpful.


A: Breast cancer then is exactly as it is now. The difference is that we now have treatments and we understand what it is and how it works. Back then, they were aware of it but there was no real way of diagnosing it early and no way of treating it.

The symptoms that your young lady could have would be a painful lump in one breast, a discharge from the nipple that could be clear, milky, or blood tinged, and painful enlargement of the lymph nodes in the axillary area (armpit) on the same side. If the disease had spread to the lungs she could be short of breath, have sharp chest pains in the area where the metastatic lesions were, and a cough that could be dry or could produce sputum, even bloody sputum. If the disease spread to the liver, she could have abdominal pain in the right upper side and could also be jaundiced, which is a yellow hue to the skin. If it metastasized to the bones, these can be very painful. This type of cancer can metastasize to the ribs, the spine, the shoulder blades, the hips, and almost anywhere. There could be deep, burning pain in these areas. If it metastasized to the brain, she could have severe headaches, intolerance to light, paralysis on one side, difficulty with speech or hearing, seizures, and finally coma and death. Which exact symptoms she had would depend upon exactly what part of the brain the metastatic lesions settled in.

She could have any or all of the above symptoms and each symptom could come in any degree of severity. This gives you a great deal of leeway in how you plot your story.

A common analgesic at that time would have been opium, a drug whose use dates back to 4000 BC. It’s a white powder that could be ingested though it has a bitter taste. Sometimes it was mixed with alcohol to make an elixir that was then drunk. As a narcotic it is highly effective at numbing pain, though the pain of bone lesions is extremely severe and often resistant to even this form of therapy. It also makes the victim lethargic and sleepy. It can make some people have bizarre nightmares and even develop delusions and hallucinations. You might be able to use these in your story.

Another option that also dates back to 4000 BC or so is alcohol. This was a staple for pain management and even for surgical anesthesia for thousands of years.

These would have been the two most common and readily available analgesics at that time. When used in combination they are even more powerful as far as controlling pain and sedating the patient.


Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


8 responses to “Q&A: How Was Breast Cancer Treated in the 16th Century?

  1. erica obey

    September 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Just a suggest for two sources that might prove useful. The first is the writer Fanny Burney’s diaries. In them, she describes undergoing a mastectomy without benefit of anesthesia. It’s ca. 1800, but it might prove useful.

    Secondly, there is a theory that the wife of one of Elizabeth’s I favorites (Dudley, maybe?) who died from a fall down the stairs actually died from a complication from breast cancer. It’s kind of a favorite Unsolved Mystery, and I read it in some Unsolved Mystery book, a while back. I wish I could be more help. But I think if you google Elizabeth’s favorite wife fall down stairs or something like that, you could come up with it pretty quickly.




  2. erica obey

    September 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Happy to help. And actually I found the book with little effort. The woman’s name was Amy Robsart, and the story is written up in Great Mysteries of History by Kenneth Platnick. Dorset, 1971.


  3. Daz

    September 2, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for all your excellent posts.


  4. Liz Steiner

    September 3, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Depending on how squeemish you are and how somewhat graphic and gross you want to get with details, one thing that often happened to breast cancer patients before there were good medical treatments, and even happens some still today with patients who lack access to good medical care, is that the cancer became fungating. That is, the cancer breaks through the skin and becomes an open wound. I work in a cancer center, and we still see this in patients who have not received proper treatment. According to one of the doctors I work with, this is not very common anymore, but was fairly common in the past. Many women could live for quite some time with breast cancer, and it would form these wounds and often get infected. The wounds can ooze fluid and smell pretty nasty. If you google “fungating breast cancer” you can get more information about it, and see pictures (they’re pretty graphic, so don’t look at them if you’re easily grossed out). Certainly no one is going to think you didn’t do your research if your character doesn’t have this develop. But since we discussed this at work just a few weeks ago, I thought of it when I read this post.


  5. Scotti Andrews

    September 3, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    My grandmother told me that when she was a girl (1920’s), people often thought cancer was contagious and ostracized the person. I thought that was interesting and would be intriguing in a story.


  6. Brandy Purdy

    September 6, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Thank you to everyone for your help. You have given me a lot to think about and explore in my novel.


  7. Sectional Garage ·

    November 13, 2010 at 7:57 am

    of course we can always prevent cancer, the key is early diagnosis and early treatment ~,:



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