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Early Breast Cancer Treatments

Posted 8/25/2014

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  There surely are some down sides to modern life, but medicine is not one of them. I suspect that we are all grateful that we live where and when we do vis a vis our cancer treatments. Even if we look back just a little bit, there have been major improvements. When I began to work at BIDMC in 1979, the standard of care for women with early breast cancer had just been changed from two years (!) to one year of chemotherapy. Perhaps five years later, the standard was changed again to six months.

  Today's entry is a fascinating collection of early recipes for treating breast cancer--circa 1680 and continuing for about one hundred years. Complied by Nadia Seiler, this is remarkable. Here is an excerpt and then a link to read more:

“For a cancer in the brest”: early modern recipes 
by Nadia Seiler

For a cancer in the breast

Take 3 pounds of new burnt lime, unslacked, and put it to a gallon of spring water and let it stand four days, then pour the water off as clear as may be. Then take half a pound of sassafras wood and half a pound of licorice and half a pound of anise seeds and half a pound of currants; shave the wood very thin and bruise all the rest and put them in the water and let it stand four days longer. Then drink thereof every morning and about four in the afternoon, a small sack glass full.
This remedy appears in Folger MS V.a.621, a receipt book owned and compiled by Lady Catherine Bacon, the youngest daughter of Samuel Pepys’s cousin and patron Edward Mountagu.2 It is a particularly extensive compilation, with most of the 300+ pages bearing between 2 and 5 receipts and many specifying sources. It appears to have been compiled over a period of several decades: the earliest recipes likely date from shortly after Lady Catherine’s first marriage in the 1680s, but several others date from well into the 18th century, including a final recipe under the heading “Anno 1738-9 Evening Post against the small-Pox to prevent infection.” The contents include a wide range of culinary preparations along with medical formularies. The organization is haphazard at best (reflecting the order in which the recipes were collected more than anything), although a partial contemporary manuscript index provides some guidance.


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