chapter  4
36 Pages

‘So Frightful to the Very Imagination’: Pain, Emotions and Cancer in the Breast

In early modern culture as well as in eighteenth-century thinking, fear was a dangerous emotion. It could cause illness and even kill. Because cancer in the breast was known to be one of the most horrible diseases it was also greatly feared, and contemporaries, both doctors and laymen, thought that the fear of cancer could in fact generate cancer in certain situations, especially if fear was overwhelming. Many people were in contact with patients and had intimate knowledge of the terrifying e ects of advanced cancer; this knowledge would make many people extremely fearful and prone to suspect the worst if their breasts gave any worrying signs such as darting pains or lumps. I have written elsewhere on the great fears Margaret Baxter and Anna Seward had when they showed such symptoms.2 Margaret Baxter was the wife of Richard Baxter, the puritan theologist, and he attested in his A Breviate of the Life of Margaret that his wife had in fact died because of her sensitive nature: by worrying about cancer she weakened her body, and eventually died, very likely believing she had cancer in the breast.3 Anna Seward had a more positive fate, but she too was devastated by her fears of cancer. reatening symptoms started up a er she accidentally hurt her breast ‘by slipping against the sharp-pointed ledge of a wainscot’. She was pained by fears and by her breast for two years, but in the end the fears luckily proved futile: the hurt in the breast did not turn cancerous. At times she had been so desperate that she wrote she envied an early grave.4