Breast cancer is something we'd rather erase from our history—and present and future for that matter. But knowing how far advances in medical history have come puts the importance of the fight against breast cancer in perspective.

As early as ancient Egyptian civilization, evidence of breast cancer had been seen in humans, all of which were declared untreatable.

Origin of Cancer Treatment

The history of treating breast cancer begins in the Renaissance period. In the 16th century, Giovanni Morgagni of Padua began performing autopsies to compare what he found with patients' illnesses. Later that century, famous surgeon John Hunter of Scotland suggested surgery to treat cancer. However, anesthesia wouldn't be developed until the next century.

The First Mastectomy

In the 17th century, doctors began understanding the human circulatory system better and soon a link between breast cancer and the lymph node system was established. While French and Scottish surgeons were the first to remove lymph nodes, breast tissue, and chest muscle, the first mastectomy was performed in 1882 by American surgeon William Stewart Halsted.

The Halsted mastectomies are now considered archaic by today's standards because of the amount of tissue removed and the resulting long-term pain and disabilities. However, they were considered standard practice until the 1970s.

The mastectomy changed thanks to advances in mammography that began in the 1950s. That was about the same time chemotherapy became more popular to treat cancers.

Breast Cancer in Modern Times

In the 1990s, scientists discovered two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—that helped identify women who have a higher probability of developing breast cancer. Another recent development was the identification of the HER-2 gene, which specifically fuels breast cancer's growth.

At first X-rays were used to discover cancer, and in the 1990s, digital mammography became another option. In 2007, the American Cancer Society recommended yearly magnetic resonance imaging (or MRIs) for women with a high risk of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is currently one of the most researched cancers.

Visit the Breast Cancer Learning Center for more information.