Breast Cancer in the Regency Period

Breast Cancer in the Regency Period

No woman ever wants to hear these words: you have breast cancer. However, in the 21st century, women have a much higher success rate in beating cancer than ever before. Thank goodness we live now and not two hundred years ago.

Which makes me wonder about what happened to women who had breast cancer during the Regency period.

As a lover of history, I always remember that horrible scene from the John Adams miniseries when his daughter has breast cancer. But that was in the United States, not England. Did England have better treatment for cancer?

According to the website, breast cancer was rather rare during the Regency Period and was usually only detecting by sight and palpitation (i.e. stage 3 and 4). At that point, life expectancy was usually no more than four years. Therefore, a diagnosis of breast cancer was basically a death sentence. The only way to treat it was by removing the breasts and that was often done without anesthesia (ala John Adams’ daughter).

The same website attributes the higher level of physical activity and the purity of food (i.e. no chemicals or preservatives) as the main reason breast cancer was so rare. I, however, look more to the high rate of mortality during childbirth as the main reason. After all, 7.5 women died per 1000 births during the Regency Period as opposed to .15 deaths per 1000 births in the United States today. And if childbirth did not kill the mother, there was always childbed fever that might strike during the post-partum period. Many men might cycle through two or three…or more!…wives due to maternal death caused by childbirth or other illnesses.

It’s hard to correctly determine how many of those women might have developed breast cancer later in life. Still, it’s unlikely that all of those women would have accounted for the fewer diagnoses than the enormous number of cancer victims in the US today where breast cancer is so common that 1 out of every 8 women will develop it.

Double mastectomies are common place and complications are rare (although I was one of those unfortunate people to have the complications but, as I always said, better me than anyone else). And while I love the thought of living during the Regency Period—the social manners, the clothing, the lifestyle! —I can easily flip-flop on that when I think about cancer or any other illness.

And how, exactly, would a woman deal with such a diagnosis? My reaction was more “it happens” while my character in The Faded Photo hides it from her family. I wonder if Elizabeth Bennett would have been stoic or scared, or maybe a mixture of both. And Darcy? Would he have withdrawn in fear or risen to the occasion to provide support knowing that his wife was most likely going to die?

Sounds like a good premise for a JAFF book…

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Sheila L. Majczan
Sheila L. Majczan
May 26, 2017 11:28 PM

Although I love stories set in those times medical care, hygiene and sanitation are very good reasons to be very happy to read about and not live in those times. I do have friends who have suffered through breast cancer and my mother died from renal cancer spreading. I am in remission from chronic myelogenous leukemia so I can empathize with some of what you probably went through. And now my brother has a deadly form of brain cancer. I imagine cancer of one type or another has touched the lives of a large percentage of the JAFF readers here. God bless each and every one of you.

Rose Fairbanks
Rose Fairbanks (@rosefairbanks)
April 28, 2017 3:51 PM

You astound me with your strength! My husband’s mother died of breast cancer when he was 8, in the 1990s. I’ve had two aunts die from breast cancer in the last few years. I try to take going through the preventive measures very seriously but like you, I’m not so sure all the clean eating and exercise in the world can prevent cancer. I would prefer for Elizabeth to not go through the pain and trauma of breast cancer, but I think I have read a story where Darcy’s mother died from it.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
April 28, 2017 1:13 PM

You are a strong woman Sarah and I applaud your strength and determination. My mother and every member of her immediate family [father, mother, brother, sister] had a form of cancer. All were different types. It was very unusual to lose every one to cancer. It has not appeared in the next generation. I pray it does not. I love reading about the Regency time; however, I don’t think I would like to live then. God has placed us where we are because we are needed at that time and place. Blessings on your continued health and well being.

April 28, 2017 8:22 AM

Sarah, thank you for this thought provoking post. I’m grateful for the medical advancements that have been made.

April 27, 2017 10:33 PM

I never gave it much thought but I agree with you that the lack of cases during the Regency period probably had a lot to do with women dying earlier. It would definitely make a moving jaff story.

April 26, 2017 4:42 PM

Thanks for such a thought provoking post, Sarah. As a 22 years and counting survivor of cancer, I wouldn’t be able to read a JAFF novel with that as a major plotline. As a pharmacist, I have to deal with it on a professional basis, and it’s always at the back of my mind personally, so in my leisure rime I prefer not to have to deal with it. I’m just so thankful for 21st century healthcare because of my own medical history. I’d probably also died after having my one and only child at 37, due to post-partum complications.

Teresa Broderick
Teresa Broderick
April 26, 2017 3:03 PM

I turned several shades of green there when you said ‘without anesthesia!! What an awful thought! I once had to have a growth removed from just below my nose. Something didn’t work and they had to finish it and stitch it up with out anesthetic because it just wouldn’t work on me. It was torture!! Can still remember it. I just can’t imagine having a breast removed in this way. How could someone endure that pain!!!

Teresa Norbraten
Teresa Norbraten
April 26, 2017 12:49 PM

Fanny Burney also had a breast removed – the hard way. Thanks God for anesthesia.

Lorraine M. Davis
Lorraine M. Davis
April 26, 2017 9:41 AM

And Jane Austen’s own aunt and cousin/sister-in-law, her beloved Eliza Handcock de Feuillide Austen, died of breast cancer. Eliza was 51.

Regina Jeffers
Regina Jeffers (@reginajeffers)
April 26, 2017 9:07 AM

I have written several story lines where Elizabeth has repeated miscarriages, for I did not have my son until I was 38 years of age. My “Christmas at Pemberley” speaks to her fears of losing another child, a theme that resonating with a number of readers, who sent me private messages on relating their experiences. I have also known something of the subject of this piece. Good luck with the book, Sarah.

April 26, 2017 4:44 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

“Christmas at Pemberley” struck a lot of chords with me too, Regina. I was nearly the same age as you when my one and only son was born.

Summer Hanford
April 26, 2017 8:35 AM

Wow, Sarah, what a difficult topic.

I often argue with people who tell me they wish they lived in a past time, like when there were knights and castles, or Regency, etc. Especially women. I love looking back and enjoying the aspects that we romanticize about those times, but going back? Even if you were lucky enough to marry a man like Mr. Darcy, who had more money than you would ever need (and marry you must, for a woman alone had few rights or options), that still wouldn’t keep you safe from so many of the perils of the time. Like, as you say, breast cancer and child birth.

As for a JAFF with that theme, I couldn’t do it. I’m a person who uses writing to escape from reality. Writing a book where Elizabeth has breast cancer would be much too difficult for me.

I applaud you for being able to take on the topic and wish you all the best with your upcoming release. Books like yours are needed to help people know they aren’t alone in what they’re going through.

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