Dying of Breast Cancer in the 1800s

Breast cancer is a disease that devastates so many women in our society each year. The catastrophic toll that it had on women in the 1800’s was much more traumatizing than it is today. Robert Shadle and James S. Olson give us a vivid picture of what breast cancer in the 1800’s was like in their essay entitled, “Dying of Breast Cancer in the 1800s. ” The authors of this incredible essay describe the life of “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail Adams. The essay gives us a detailed account from the beginning to the end of Nabby’s fight with cancer.
Nabby and Colonel William Smith were married in June of 1786 and they would go on to later have three children. Colonel Smith was not one to settle down, moving from America to London, from London back to America, spending entirely too much money that he did not have. In the year of 1808 Nabby found a small dimple on her breast that she thought was probably just the sign of old age. It turns out that that dimple was actually a malignant tumor rapidly spreading throughout her body.
In the year of 1809 Nabby noticed that the “old age” dimple had turned into a solid lump hidden in her breast and as time went on the lump slowly grew in size. Nabby went from physician to physician consulting them on what to do, and none of the remedies seemed to work. So in 1811 Nabby returned to Quincy, Massachusetts where her parents resided and contacted Dr. Benjamin Rush, a family friend and a famous skilled physician. Dr. Rush advised Nabby to have surgery immediately. Nabby consented to the idea although she was rather timid.

Surgery in these days was not the same as it is today. Today there is a vast amount of research that goes into each particular surgery; in those days it was the complete opposite. Today we have sanitation procedures, while back then they did not know anything about sanitation! And the biggest difference in surgeries between the two time periods is the use of anesthesia. In the 1800’s the use of anesthesia was not present, this meant that patients were wide-awake during the procedure.
The graphic depiction of Nabby Adams strapped to the chair with the doctor on top slashing at the breast and pulling out the cancerous cells was an account that made my stomach turn upside down. The grueling pain that she must have felt and then to later find out that it was all for nothing. In the 1800’s, most cases after a patient goes under the knife within the next couple of days they are susceptible to devastating infections. Although this did not occur for Nabby, I can not say the same for a large portion of the women during this time.
Nabby’s life was severely altered after the procedure though, she was unable to perform her normal day-to-day life and the use of her left arm was completely gone. The surgery completely changed her life for the worse and on August 9th of 1813 at the age of forty-six Nabby Adams passed away. This article completely changed my view on breast cancer. Before reading the article I was under the impression that breast cancer today was not a very dangerous cancer and was easily curable as long as you caught it early. I would see the pink cleats, gloves, and mouthpieces in the NFL games and just think that it was mainly for show.
But after seeing that 50,000 women die from breast cancer each year in our day and age made me realize that that is not the case and that number was even more devastating during the 1800’s. Cancer is a disease that is affecting our community daily. This article shows that it doesn’t matter who are, if your parents are the founders of our country or not, anyone can get cancer. I would say that the article was definitely worth reading, it gave me significant insight on how breast cancer affected women in the 1800’s.

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