Roughly around the time of the American Revolution, in an effort to discredit the time- honored ideas of humoral medicine, French physi- cian Jean Astruc placed a slice of a breast cancer tumor in the oven next to a slice of beef, cooked both to a jerkylike consistency, chewed each one thoroughly, and declared that they tasted exactly the same, proving (among other things I can't even bear to joke about) that the breast cancer tumor contained neither bile nor acid.
Out with the old superstitions; in with empirical state- of- the- art methods. Now the true cause of breast cancer was wide open for speculation. One school of thought pointed to the high incidence of breast cancer among nuns as evidence that breast cancer was caused by a lack of sex.
Because breasts are sexual organs, n'est- ce pas? Without the fulfillment of their bountifully natural purpose, what could they do but atrophy and became cancerous? (I imagine there was no shortage of selfless lads willing to hurl themselves between innocent young women and this dreaded disease.) In women who did voluntarily engage in "relations"—randy wives and scurrilous hookers— tumors were said to arise from a lymphatic blockage caused by an overly vigorous libido. Another popular theory cited constriction of lymphatic vessels due to depression. Others blamed the curdling of unexpressed milk and the coagulation of blood caused by a sedentary lifestyle.
And so, in the enlightened age of Mozart, after three thousand years of observation and experimentation, it was scientifically deduced that if a woman presented with breast cancer, it was due to frigidity, promiscuity, craziness, laziness, or all of the above in some combination with the unknowable will of God.
One Woman after Another passed into ancient history, each less than a grain of sand, and there are places in the world where nothing has changed. Today women in developing countries echo the story of the woman in the papyrus and face their fate as if the last three thousand years never happened. I've seen One Woman's face, and I can't forget her. Sitting on a wooden stool by an ancient stone wall, wearing clothes right out of a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic, she looked up at me and asked, "This disease— is it contagious?"
She has to think of her children.
At this writing, according to statistics, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for American women between forty and fift y- five years of age. In One Woman's corner of the world, there are no statistics, never mind screening or even the possibility of treatment. Breast cancer comes and goes unnoted, misunderstood, taking thousands of lives with it. One Woman at a time.