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Fanny Burney’s breast cancer

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Fanny Burney was a much praised novelist, playwright and writer of journals and letters. The sprightly Fanny (1752–1840) moved in a cultured circle that included Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Edmund Burke.

Her journals, which extended over 72 years, are prized vignettes of English life of her time. She was a fascinating storyteller, with a talent for imitating the personalities she described.

During a sojourn in France, Fanny developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Her account of this experience has become a classic of medical history.

We are reminded of the thousands of men, women and children who courageously went under the surgeon’s knife before the development of anaesthetics in the 1840s. “Il faut s’attendre à souffrir,” warned the surgeon — “You must be ready to suffer.”

Fanny insisted that she should be given only two hours warning of the operation. On 30 September 1811 Fanny was confronted by seven surgeons in black, their pupils and nurses. She was told to undress and lie down on two old mattresses covered by a sheet. She was given a glass of wine cordial, then blindfolded.

(Readers of a squeamish disposition should stop now.)

“My dear Esther,” Fanny wrote to her sister, “when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast — cutting through veins, arteries, flesh, nerves, I began a scream that lasted unremittingly during the whole time of the incision. When the wound was made and the instrument withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished. But again I felt the knife, describing a curve, cutting against the grain.”

As the knife was withdrawn for the second time Fanny concluded that the operation was over. “Oh no! Presently the terrible cutting was renewed — and worse than ever, to separate the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered. I remained in utterly speechless torture.”  

Fanny had expected that only the tumour would be cut out. In fact, the seven men had held her down for a full 20 minutes while her whole breast was removed.

But the surgery did the trick. Fanny was 59 years old at the time and she survived to the age of 88 with no recurrence of the cancer.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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