Breast Cancer in Canada: Medical Response and Attitudes, 1900-1950


  • Wendy Mitchinson


Most historiography concerning the treatment of breast cancer focuses on the radical mastectomy as the treatment of choice during the first half of the twentieth century. How frequently this surgery was actually used, however, has not been clearly determined. It was feasible only in cases that had been diagnosed early, and many women did not consult their doctors until their disease had progressed significantly. The debate among Canadian physicians, and others, regarding methods of treatment was accompanied by a similar debate over the best diagnostic method. Evidence is suggestive that Canadian physicians differed from their American counterparts in three areas: in not rigidly enforcing one-step surgery, in their willingness to use radium as an adjunct to surgery, and in their challenge to radical mastectomy. The discourse over treatment, diagnosis, and causes of breast cancer took place in a gendered context that involved the role of women in society as well as the function of their bodies.