3 queens & 1 diagnosis: breast cancer

On today´s International Day of Action for Women’s Health I want to address a very important and personal topic: breast cancer. As about a year ago my beloved granny died on breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. It has been widely studied throughout history and has inspired breakthroughs in other types of cancer too.

By telling you the stories of 3 queens from different centuries and countries I want to show you the improvement of breast cancer research and the increased chance of survival: Breast cancer was first named in the ancient Egyptian Edwin Smith Papyrus (~1600 BC), when it was seen as incurable.

Queen Atossa of Persia (550-475 BC)

Bust of Atossa

The eldest daughter of Cyrus the Great, sister-wife of Cambyses II and Darius I, and mother of Xerxes I, Utauθa, is better known under her Greek name Atossa.

The Greek historian Herodot (5th century BC) made her the first known breast cancer patient in history: In “The Histories” Herodot described Atossa´s bleeding lump in her breast and that the Greek slave Democedes excised her tumor.

… had a tumour on her breast after some time it burst; and spread considerably. As long as it was small she concealed it, and from delicacy informed no one of it; when it became dangerous, she sent for Democedes—a famous doctor of medicine—and showed it to him.

Herodot on Atossa´s breast tumor

Democedes is said to have cured her, but historians argue whether that is true or not.

Atossa became the symbol of cancer sufferers: E. g. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book “The Emperor of All Maladies” made her travel through time and encounter different diagnosis and treatments of her breast cancer.

Anne of Austria

Portrait by Peter Paul Rubens (~ 1620)

In November 1664 Anne of Austria, queen mother of the French King Louis XIV, who you might know from “The Three Musketeers”, discovered a lump in her left breast and consulted physicians. The court physicians diagnosed incurable breast cancer.

… that having seen cancers in the nuns of Val-de-Grâce, who had died all rotten, she had always had a horror of this disease, so terrible to her imagination.

Anne of Austria, on breast cancer

Anne´s fear is highly understandable considering the 17th century treatment of cancer: based on humorism focusing on bloodletting, ematics and laxatives and the upcoming full amputation of the breast, called mastectomy. This procedure was performed without anaesthetics till the late 19th century.

Breast cancer surgery in the 18th century

Like many women of her time – and unfortunately some do so till today – Anne felt shame and embarrassment due to her disease. That is why she kept her diagnosis a secret, quietly endured her pain and just told her close friend Madame de Motteville. De Motteville´s memoirs offer a unique insight into the Queen’s feelings.

Anne´s “treatment”

It started with bloodletting, purging and hemlock ointments to relieve the pain. As her condition did not change a “secret remedy” of belladonna and burnt lime was used. In August 1665 she got worse and suffered from further tumors and regular fever. An arsenic paste was applied to the tumour and the diseased tissue was cut out with a razor.

she felt he was destined not to cure her, but to be her executioner.

The breast cancer treatment of Anne of Austria

Anne died in January 1666 as all the treatments failed. At that time the cancer had spread on her arms, shoulders and neck. The tumors ulcerated, discharged black smelly fluids. A horror for the kings mother. She found her only relief in her trust in God.

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1900-2002)

Portrait by Richard Stone in 1986

On the 30th July 1984, The Queen Mother went to the hospital to get the carcinoma of the breast excised by William Slack, Sergeant-Surgeon of the Queen. On the 2nd August she could already go home and celebrate her 84th birthday.

The public was told that she had to undergo 3 days of hospitals test and was in “very good health”.

The Queen Mother´s treatment shows that breast cancer surgeries have become less invasive and dangerous. Furthermore, the chance of surviving and recovering quickly increased.


The stories of Atossa, Anne of Austria and The Queen Mother point out that there had been many advances in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of breast cancer. But there is still a long way till cancer is cured.

Early detection and treatment stay the best defense against breast cancer. That is why I want to highlight the importance of self-examination:


This video explains how to perform a self-examination of your breasts:

Please, include self-examination into your routine as it can save your life.

P. s. love you, granny, and miss you every single day!!!

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