Sunday, February 24, 2013
Arsenic, Gall of Boar, and Three Tablespoons of Hemlock Juice
I’m an extremely curious (some would say nosy) person by nature, so it still surprises me a little that I haven’t been compelled to find out every single thing I can about breast cancer. I did some initial research; it seemed the responsible thing to do. But I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available, not to mention the fact that my eyes glazed over every time I picked any one article to read because I didn’t have the base of knowledge about science and medicine or the vocabulary necessary to understand what I was looking at. So I gave up trying to be a breast cancer expert and put myself in the hands of my very excellent doctors, learning only enough to be able to ask intelligent questions about my own treatment along the way.
As I tried to put what was happening into perspective, I talked to friends who had undergone treatment for breast cancer over the years; I read some cancer memoirs, including Jan Lucas Grimm’s brutally honest My Beautiful Leukemia. I read about the history of breast cancer, too.
Briefly (and not very scientifically)…
Hippocrates (460 BC-380 BC) named cancer “karkinoma” (carcinoma), Greek for “crab,” because the tumor with its extensions reminded him of the body and legs of a crab. He believed the body was made up of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When a person became ill, it was because one of these humors was out of balance. Cancer, according to Hippocrates, was caused by an excess of black bile. It was curable only in its earliest stages, with bloodletting, which was believed to purge the patient of bad humors, and by applying a variety of kinds of pastes, most containing arsenic, to the area where the tumor had appeared. The pastes caused tissue necrosis, which sloughed off, leaving the wound to heal by the formation of new tissue.
In the second century, the view of cancer was much the same as Hippocrates’s. But the Roman physician Galen wrote about surgical cures for breast cancer in cases where the tumor could be removed at a very early stage. Surgical tools were primitive, though—scalpels, forceps, hooks, and cauterizing tools that must have struck terror in a patient’s heart just looking at them. And here’s the recipe for anesthesia, which might also have given her pause: “Gall of boar, 3 spoons of hemlock juice, wild briony, lettuce, opium poppy, henbane vinegar. Mix together, boil a little, put into glass vessel, well stoppered. Add 3 spoons of good wine or ale, mix well.” The patient was to drink the whole bottle next to a warm fire, where she would fall asleep and could be operated on. A mixture of salt and vinegar was used to awaken her when the operation was over—assuming the loss of blood or anesthesia hadn’t killed her.
These same practices and beliefs would have informed the treatment of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer well into the sixteenth century, when the first book of anatomy was published. Anesthesia as we know it wasn’t invented until the mid-1800’s. It wasn't until the late twentieth century, when biochemistry and technology combined to create the field of molecular biology, that scientists began to understand what causes breast cancer, leading to the kind of treatments I'm undergoing today.
Talk about perspective! That little dose of history made a lumpectomy and moderate courses of chemo and radiation look not so bad, after all. Nonetheless, I know that this experience will change me--and I knew from the moment of diagnosis that, eventually, anything and maybe everything from small, seemingly insignificant details to the essence of the experience will make its way into a novel.
The novelist Muriel Spark said of being a writer, “Nothing is lost,” which I believe, absolutely--and which makes me wonder sometimes, What do people who aren’t writers do with the joys and sorrows of their lives?