Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Mermaids, monsters and movie-making

The story of Mermaids and Monsters, my book about mastectomy and the history of breast cancer surgery, is being made into a short documentary. The director, James Williams, is a final-year BA TV student at Bournemouth, and originally contacted me for advice only; his intention was to explore alternative treatments and approaches to breast cancer. After reading a few chapters of Mermaids, he decided he wanted to make a film about my quest to put my experience in the context of 200 years of surgical, literary and women's history. I was chuffed.

We just wrapped up a week of filming, which started in Cornwall. My children were thrilled to have four exciting new people to stay and loved it. The film crew followed me around as I spoke to my surgeon and the head breast care nurse at the Mermaid Centre. We had tea and scones at Dolly's Tea Room and Wine Bar in Falmouth — a favourite hangout for us mermaids (you can get a taste for it here!). And we went for dramatic walks along the amazing coastal path near Lamorna and the nature reserve belonging to the Minack Chronicles Nature Trust, a place that puts human experience into humbling perspective.

We headed to London and spoke to experts at the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret museum in Southwark and at the Wellcome Collection, as a result of which I was given a mock amputation while lying on an operating table dating from 1820, and was later able to pore over original copies of the Lancet medical journal from 1851 about fears of surgical "mania" resulting from the invention of anaesthesia. (Who'd have thought anyone could look back at the good old days of no anaesthesia with fondness? Cripes.) Now I can't wait to see the final film, which James has agreed could be screened at a fundraiser for breast cancer. Cheers James, and thanks to your fab crew too - Jacob, Clare and Harry!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Alternative treatments for breast cancer: lead, brimstone and parsnips anyone?

Last night I came upon a book, published in 1761 by John Wesley and digitised by Googlebooks, called Primitive Physick, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. It was written as a self-help book, a home remedy manual for diseases from "Obfructed Perfpiration, vulgarly called catching Cold" to cancer, and was designed to save people the money they would otherwise spend on doctors and quacks, by using ingredients they might find easily or about the house. 
It was such a popular book in its day that this was the ninth edition, and the author added "Tried" to some of the remedies within to prove that they worked. Thus one of the "proven" remedies for a certain type of ague (a flu-like condition) is a plaster of treacle and soot, applied to the wrist. While I'm not convinced, this would have given the eighteenth-century reader some hope that they would find success and the impetus to give the remedy a try.

I was fascinated in particular by a section on how to attend to cancer of the breast, shedding more light on some of the things Fanny Burney might have attempted when she discovered her lump at the turn of the nineteenth century. Anything rather than have surgery! Most of them sound healthier than the hemlock and arsenic that Alfred Velpeau experimented with in his 1854 Treatise on the Diseases of the Breast. Only marginally, mind.

I give you an extract here with a warning: don't try this at home...

(From Primitive Physick by John Wesley, published by W. Strahan, 1761. Pages 40 - 41. For ease of reading I've typed s instead of the eighteenth-century preference for it, f:)

24. (Condition no.) A Cancer in the Breast*

99. (Remedy no.) Use the Cold Bath. This has cured many. This cured Mrs. Bates of Leicestershire of a Cancer in her Breast, a Consumption, a Sciatica, and Rheumatism which she had had near twenty Years. —She bathed daily for a Month and drank only Water.

[*A Cancer is an hard round uneven painful Swelling, of a blackish or leaden Colour, the Veins round which seem ready to burst. It comes commonly at first with a Swelling about as big as a Pea, which does not at first give much Pain, nor change the Colour of the Skin]

Generally where Cold Bathing is necessary to cure any Disease, Water drinking is so to prevent a Relapse.

100. If it be not broke apply a Piece of Sheet-lead beat very thin and pricked full of Pin-holes, for Days or Weeks, to the whole Breast. —Purges should be added every third or fourth Day:

101. Or, Rub the whole Breast Morning and Evening with Spirit of Hartshorn:

102. Or, take a mellow Apple, cut off the Top, take out the Core, fill the Hole with Hogs-grease then cover it with the Top, and roast the Apple thoroughly, take off the Paring, beat the Pap well, spread it thick on Linnen, and lay it warm on the Sore, putting a Bladder over it. —Change this every twelve or twenty four Hours:

103. Take Horses-Spurs and dry them by the Fire, 'til they will beat to a Powder. Sift and infuse two Drams in two Quarts of Ale; drink half a Pint every six Hours, new Milk warm. It has cured many. Tried.

104. Or, apply Goose-dung and Celandine beat well together and spread on a fine Rag. It will both cleanse and heal the Sore:

105. Or, a Poultis of wild Parsnips, Flowers, Leaves and Stalks, changing it Morning and Evening:

106. Or, live three Months on Apples and Apple-Water:

107. Or, take half a Dram of Venice-Soap twice a Day:

108. Or, take Brimstone and Gas of Sulphur as Art. This has cured one far advanced in Years.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Breast cancer surgery: stories from 1930 onwards

On Tuesday 29 December 2011, BBC Radio Cornwall broadcast an interview my surgeon and I did about my book project, Mermaids and Monsters, a history of breast cancer surgery. I'm looking for patient stories to help paint a picture of what it was like for women in the recent past to undergo surgery for breast cancer. I have access to archives from hundreds of years ago, but all the records are unavailable to view from the 1930s onwards. Thus, we did the radio broadcast to see if there was anybody who had any family stories to share about their experiences of breast cancer surgery in the twentieth century.

If you want to share a story, I would love to hear from you, in a comment or by email. 

My email address is lessangermoresmile@yahoo.com.

With grateful thanks - Kelly.