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 ncbi.nlm.nih.gov 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…