In Search of Cancer in Literature

In search of cancer in literature

The word cancer comes from the Greek word karkinos meaning “crab”.  It was coined by Hippocrates, who thought tumours resembled these creatures.  Cancers were known of in ancient times, but little could be done to arrest the disease.  Early medical techniques were drastic and, without anaesthesia, tortuous.  In more recent literature, stories about cancer tend to focus on psychological and sociological dimensions of the disease.  It serves as a metaphor for the death that awaits us all.


Ancient Egyptian texts, Papyrus Louvre E32847, recto 20-verso 16 (1500BCE)

The world’s oldest documented cases of cancer are recorded on these papyrus texts, which elaborate eight cases of tumours occurring on the breast.  According to the inscriptions, there was no curative treatment for the disease, only palliative treatment.  Surface tumours were surgically removed in a  manner similar to today.  Deeper tumours required cauterisation, an attempt to destroy tissue with a hot instrument known ‘the fire drill’.


Hippocrates, Hippocratic Corpus (460-377BCE)

Hippocrates gives an account of a woman from Abdera who had a carcinoma of the breast with a bloody discharge from her nipple.  When he treated this discharge, stopping the bleeding, she died.  He also noted that when menstrual bleeding ceased, breast cancer became more prevalent.  He identified stages of cancer, noting that, as the disease progresses, the patient develops a bitter taste, refuses food, develops a shooting pain from breast to neck, complains of thirst and becomes emaciated.  From this point, death was certain.


The Legend of Saint Agatha (3rd Century BCE)

Born into an illustrious family, Agatha found faith early in life.  Possessing both wealth and beauty, she caught the attention of Quintianus, a local dignitary.  Bent on gratifying his lust and avarice, exploited the emperor’s edict against the Christians and had her kidnapped. Rather than submit, she prayed for salvation.  This infuriated Quintianus, who had her tortured in increasingly gruesome ways, even cutting off her breasts.  Her wounds miraculously healed, a fact Quintianus ignored.  Finally, she asked God to receive her and gave up her ghost.  Because of her mutilation, she is known as the patron saint of breast cancer.


Fanny Burney, A Mastectomy: Letter to Esther Burney (1812)

…When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound – but when again I felt the instrument – describing a curve – cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & – Oh Heaven! – I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom…


 The Death of Jane Austen (18 July 1817)

Jane Austen’s death at the relatively young age of 41, has been the subject of much speculation.  Critics and historians have suggested a number of possibilities, from a recurrence of childhood typhus to bovine tuberculosis to Addison’s Disease.  More recently, lymphoma has been put forward as a possible culprit.  In Jane Austen (2001), Carol Shields speculates that the author died of breast cancer.  It’s worth noting that Shields died two years after publishing the Austen biography.  Cause of death? Breast cancer.


Edith Wharton, “Diagnosis” (1930)

This short story focuses on the reverberations of illness and impending death–specifically, the way a diagnosis can lead to certain behaviours that would otherwise not be undertaken. As he is leaving his doctor after being pronounced healthy, Paul Dorrance spies a piece of paper with the word “cancer” written on it.  Believing his doctor has deceived him, he leaves in a cloud of gloom and, in that mood, is prompted to propose to Eleanor, his long time mistress.  He had earlier that day determined to break off with Eleanor, but now feels she is just the one to care for him through illness until death.  However, Paul survives in surprising good health.  It’s Eleanor who becomes ill, dying of a heart attack many years later.  Paul then learns she had paid a visit to the doctor on the fateful day of Paul’s cancer “diagnosis” tricking him as he sought to trick her.


Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death (1965)

Although I was not with Maman when she died, and although I had been with three people when they were actually dying, it was when I was at her bedside that I saw Death, the Death of the dance of death, with its bantering grin, the Death of fireside tales that knocks on the door, a scythe in its hand, the Death that comes from elsewhere, strange and inhuman: it had the very face of Maman when she showed her gums in a wide smile of unknowingness.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)

Solzhenitsys examines with clinical precision the nature of the physical disease and the process whereby the patient, like the prisoner–“stripped of his outer bark and ready to be planed”–is revealed to himself and sometimes transformed by the confrontation with death.

Cancer Ward is based on his own experiences when he was cast up in Tashkent, sick with cancer, after having spent  eight years in prisons and camps.  Still in exile, he entered a hospital where his cancer, never clearly diagnosed as malignant, was “cured”.


Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978) and

David Rieff, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (2008)

Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, originally published as three long essays in The New York Review of Books, while she was being treated for breast cancer in the early 1970s.  In the treatise, she writes about the kingdom of the ill and challenges the blame-the-victim mentality that surrounds illness.  Without mentioning her own illness, she defies the thinking that cancer is caused by the patient’s supposed ‘cancer personality’.  According to proponents of this theory, patients bring cancer upon themselves by having a resigned, repressed, inhibited personality.  In some way or another, the patient derives emotional benefits from illness, and the patient can overcome cancer by consciously choosing to give up these benefits.

Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from acute myelogenous leukaemia, a cancer of the blood.  Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff, in Swimming in a Sea of Death.  He reports that the most difficult aspect of her final decline was the terrifying democracy of illness and shows that, in the end, Sontag couldn’t live her illness without metaphor: she needed the idea of a fight even after the fight was lost.


Helen Garner, The Spare Room (2008)

A woman named Helen prepares her spare room for her fried Nicola who has stage-four cancer.  Nicola, who refuses to believe she is dying, is coming to Helen’s city in order to undertake an alternative therapy that Helen believes is pure quackery.  This novel, which inhabits a land between fiction and non-fiction, shows two powerfully different views of illness.  The clear, calm perspective of the healthy is a luxury dreamed of by the dying. Helen remains furious, judgmental, powerless; Nicola, also ultimately powerless, clings to the shreds of hope, refusing to submit to the inevitable.


One comment

  1. Adair, A lovely engagement with this difficult history. Thank you for uncovering and collating these references. I must also recommend Brenda Walker’s ‘Reading by Moonlight’. An astonishingly good piece of writing.

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