On the first night of class, Professor Larson mentioned some students were likely taking the class because they plan on going to medical school. By taking this class, they could expand their understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the body for the purpose of treating its diseases in possible future careers. Therefore, for my final project, I wanted to repeat this process by employing this bounty of information to study the history of breast cancer in another country. The selection of a different country than the United States was intentional. Because the practice of medicine is widely varied and doesn’t follow a set standard, there exists a myriad of possibilities from which one can learn and broaden their perspective. By viewing medicine through a new, separate, and rich lens, one can gain insight where they would not have otherwise. For example, indigenous peoples across North America have been utilizing their “knowledge of medicinal plants” within “every stage of reproductive healthcare” for thousands of years (LaPier), yet very few doctors are actually educated on these processes nor are even aware of them. I acknowledge this so as to establish a key idea of my project: there is not one sole way to provide healthcare. For example, Western medicine would administer a hormone pill to a patient to enact an abortion whereas the Blackfeet women of the Dakotas would utilize a precise mixture of specific plants. Neither one of these processes nor their fields shall be deemed as “superior” to its counterpart; they are equal of their own right. As a collegiate student, it is very important to me to be aware of my cultural bias and the ethnocentrist influence of Western society in the academic, cultural, and medical spheres not only in regards to this project, but within these fields and their histories as a whole, for it is their history where these systems of thinking have originated. With this in mind, I wanted to approach my research and analysis of the history of breast cancer with an emphasis on Italy from a multicultural perspective, electing to view Western medicine not as the norm nor standard but rather the culmination of centuries of shared knowledge within a particular culture of the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the body. Altogether, I am researching the history of breast cancer with an emphasis on Italian history for the purpose of broadening the perspective from which my analysis is rooted in. I will discuss the anatomy of breast tissue and how its structure enables its function, transition to the history–both medicine and art–of breast cancer with an emphasis on the Renaissance era, and conclude my findings.
To begin, the system of education on which this class is based organizes the body to an acute degree of precision by classifying the body into numerous systems such as the cardiovascular or skeletal based on explicit criteria, with the capacity to identify the body even at a cellular level–a feat enabled by recent technological advancements; for example, the “microscope”. The system I will examine in particular is that of the connective tissues. There are three characteristics unique to this system that distinguish it from others: all connective tissues share a common embryonic origin, have varying degrees of vascularity, and their cells are suspended in an extracellular matrix. In addition to these qualities, all connective tissues possess three compositional elements: cells, fibers, and ground substance. These components are arranged uniquely to the connective tissue it composes. Because of this, some connective tissues are better suited for some purposes than others. For example, the loose proper areolar connective tissue is composed of loosely arranged collagen fibers containing fibroblasts, macrophages, mast cells, and some white blood cells. This arrangement allows the tissue to support and bind other tissues; its loose fibers enable the tissue to hold more interstitial fluid than other tissues by acting as a water reservoir. Due to this quality, the loose proper areolar connective tissue is a universal packing material between other tissues. Additionally, it is located under the subcutaneous tissue, around the kidneys and eyeballs, within the abdomen, and within the breasts in proxy to the mammary glands and adipose tissue. The anatomy of breast tissue enables its function: mast cells aid in infection prevention, collagen fibers provide strength and stability, and the areolar connective tissue, woven deep within the epidermis, provides flexibility and elasticity. Form follows function, and it is the aforementioned characteristics that enable the breasts to, in this isolated context, serve their reproduction function (nursing a baby). Interestingly, there are a variety of diseases in which breast tissue can occur, an example being breast cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of this disease encompass lumps or thickening of breast tissue, change in size, shape or appearance of a breast, dimpling of the skin, a newly inverted nipple, skin redness, and flaking, peeling, or scaling of the pigmented area of the breast known as the areola. The disease takes decades to form and, once established, is aggressive in its advance. Despite these obstacles, substantial support for “breast cancer awareness” and “research funding” have yielded effective treatments through which afflicted patients can be treated, enabled solely by our extensive understanding of the body and research funding (Mayo Clinic).
Yet it is only within recent centuries that knowledge of human anatomy–both gross and cellular–has been achieved to such a degree of precision, detail, and accuracy. Throughout the course of time, humanity has been continually building its vast array of knowledge on the topic of human anatomy, each culture forming its own unique, respected, and independent ideas. One particularly fruitful period lasted four hundred years and spanned the continental Europe, originating in Florence, Italy–the Renaissance. This era was a period of incredible cultural growth as innovation, both artistic and technological, classical learning and wisdom, and exploration of new ideas and even the geophysical world surged. By the same token, as Europe advanced into the modern age, so did the art of surgery (Helicon). The impact of the Renaissance on the field of medicine cannot be understated. Not only was the first medically-accurate anatomical model of the human body created, but major developments in the branch of surgery and in particular the treatment of breast cancer were established (Helicon). Just as the inventor of the microscope transformed the field of medicine today, the first model of the human body–created by university students through numerous dissections, disproving Galen’s ape-based model–transformed the field of surgery in Renaissance Italy, serving effectively as the cornerstone of medicine for it was through this model and other modes of thinking that the anatomical concept of disease was first established (Charlier, P., Appenzeller, O., & Lippi, D.). These developments prompted new ways of thinking in the practice of medicine, opening up new fields of practice and approaches to treatment of pathology such as physical therapy. In my project, I examine this early history of surgery, write a paper about it, and embroider The Night by Michelagelo Buoarroti, the sculpture in which possesses the qualities of an abnormally sculpted breast, hardening of the nipple, and irregular coloring of the breast tissue in some areas (Charlier, P., Appenzeller, O., & Lippi, D.). These symptoms are consistent with that of breast cancer. Buoarroti’s sculpture, like so many other pieces of the Renaissance, reflects a commonly observed female pathological condition of the time as well as a strong cultural belief that some surgical procedures–specifically, mastectomies–should not be performed as breasts are integral to the female identity (Charlier, P., Appenzeller, O., & Lippi, D.).
In conclusion, there is value in examining the scientific bodies of information of different countries because the intersection of culture and medicine influences how medicine is practiced. For example, Italian surgeons of the Renaissance period were very conservative in their removal of breast tissue in their surgeries because of a strong cultural belief in Italy at the time: breasts were an integral part of femininity, and what it means to be a woman; therefore, extensive tissue removal was deemed excessive. Their culture pervaded every aspect of how they conducted society. Without understanding this cultural aspect or disregarding it altogether, important pieces of medicine would be lost or misunderstood. Moreover, by examining the art and history of diseases in other countries, one can better understand the scope and prevalence of a disease in an extended period of time.
Rendition of “The Night” by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1526-1531
LaPier, A. B., Beck, A., & LaPier, R. (2022, June 30). For Indigenous Peoples, Abortion Is a Religious Right. Retrieved from https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2022/06/30/abortion-indigenous-peoples-reproductive-health
Mayo Clinic. (2022, April 27). Breast cancer – symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic; Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/breast-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352470
The impact of the Renaissance on Medicine. (2018). In Helicon (Ed.), The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide. Helicon. Credo Reference: https://uaf.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/the_impact_of_the_renaissance_on_medicine/0?institutionId=5478
Bianucci, R., Perciaccante, A., Charlier, P., Appenzeller, O., & Lippi, D. (2018). Earliest evidence of malignant breast cancer in Renaissance paintings. The Lancet Oncology, 19(2), 166–167. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(18)30035-4
What is Areolar Tissues and What are Its Functions. (n.d.). BYJUS. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://byjus.com/biology/areolar-tissue/#:~:text=Contains%20mast%20cells%20that%20help%20prevent%20infection.%20The