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.
Brandy Purdy, author of THE BOLEYN WIFE and THE CONFESSION OF PIERS GAVESTON
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.