Excerpt: 'Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer'


A Brief History of the Beast The earliest documented cases of breast cancer appear in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, one of several existing papyri that detail ancient Egyptian medical practices. The unknown physician who crafted this document described a number of ailments and injuries and how they should be treated with surgery, magic, or medicinal herbs. Warm tumors in the breast were likely the result of an infection. The remedy: cauterization. A shuddering thought, but the patient probably lived to tell about it. In the case of hard, cold tumors deep within the breast, the scroll states simply, "There is no treatment."

This wasn't a disease the Egyptian physician saw often. Malignant tumors of all kinds were noted with about the same frequency in most of the same gender and age demographics that apply today. Since he recognized that breast tumors varied in nature, it's possible this physician may have also observed that those presenting in younger women tended to kill with a swift , unstoppable virulence. But breast cancer is far more prevalent in women over fi ft y, and most women in ancient Egypt didn't live past thirty- five, so this patient was rare.

One woman in thousands.

Given what we know about this disease and about ancient Egyptian culture, I imagine One Woman watched with interest as the physician carefully recorded her case. She almost certainly didn't know how to read or write. There is no treatment, he told her, straightforward but not without compassion, I think. He seems like a "good doctor" sort in his other writings. Perhaps he offered her a tincture made from alcohol and flowers, a prayer, a little stone god, some comfort she could cling to. One Woman went home to her family and went on with her life. The tumor in her breast grew steadily over the coming months. The breast itself seemed larger, the skin thick and red, spidered with veins and stretch marks, but she felt strong and went about her daily business. Some days were better than others, and she felt a flash of hope. She laid fruit in front of the little stone god, whispered in its ear. Then came another day, and her hope faded.

The cancer metastasized, spreading from breast to breast, then riddling lymph nodes, lungs, spine, and liver. First, she felt a firm bulge under her right arm. Her fingers tingled and burned with neuralgia. She dropped things sometimes. Then there was a stabbing pain in her spine when she bent to lift her small child. Eventually, she had to sit on the floor and let him climb into her lap, holding him over on the side where she could still stand the pain if he leaned against her breast. When she laughed or yawned, there was a stitching pull deep inside her chest. It seemed to form a tight fist in her lung at times. She'd wake up coughing, struggling for breath. It made the baby cry, but when she tried to go to him, she was dizzy and nauseous. She was bent with the effort of getting up in the morning. Her complexion yellowed. The coughing spells settled into a nagging pattern of hoarse, painful barking.

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