Understanding breast cancer - The long and winding road

BBA Clin. 2017 Jan 27;7:64-77. doi: 10.1016/j.bbacli.2017.01.001. eCollection 2017 Jun.


Background: Despite a remarkable increase in the depth of our understanding and management of breast cancer in the past 50 years, the disease is still a major public health problem worldwide and poses significant challenges. The palpability of breast tumors has facilitated diagnosis and documentation since ancient times. The earliest descriptions of breast cancer date back to around 3500 BCE. For centuries to follow, theories by Hippocrates (460 BCE) and Galen (200 CE), attributing the cause of breast cancer to an "excess of black bile" and treatment options including the use of opium and castor oil, prevailed. Surgical resection was introduced in the 18th century. The advent of modern medicine led to the development of novel treatment options that include hormonal, targeted and chemo-therapies. There are still several therapeutic challenges including the treatment of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), and overcoming drug resistance.

Scope of review: The increased incidence and awareness of breast cancer has led to significant changes in diagnosis and treatment in recent decades. But, mankind has come a long way. Herein, I have traced how our understanding of breast cancer has evolved from the early description of the disease around 460 BCE as "black bile-containing crab-like tumors" to the conventional as a heterogeneous disease with high degree of diversity between and within tumors, as well as among breast cancer patients. How is breast cancer treated today and how do risk factors, breast cancer subtype and drug resistance contribute to the therapeutic challenges at the turn of the 21st century?

Major conclusions: Breast cancer remains a serious public health issue worldwide. However, appreciable growth in our understanding of breast cancer in the past century has led to remarkable progress in the early detection, treatment and prevention of the disease. The clinical focus is shifting more towards tailored therapy as more targets are characterized and novel highly innovative approaches are developed.

General significance: Tracing the history of breast cancer, highlights how increased awareness of the disease, and progress in research and development have enhance our understanding of the disease.

Keywords: Angelina Jolie; Aromatase inhibitors; BRCA1 and BRCA2; Breast cancer; ER; HER2; Herceptin; Hippocrates; Mammography; Radical mastectomy; Tamoxifen; Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Publication types

  • Review