In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’d like to tell you the story of Frances “Fanny” Burney who was operated on for breast cancer by Napoleon’s surgeon in 1811.
Frances Burney d’Arblay (1752-1840) was a novelist, diarist and playwright. In total, she wrote four novels (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer), eight plays, one biography and 20 volumes of journals and letters. In addition to the critical acclaim she received on her own, she is credited with influencing writers who came after her, namely Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Fanny first felt pain in her right breast in August 1811. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in September and Napoleon’s surgeon, Baron DominiqueJean Larrey, agreed to do the surgery. In order to keep her from getting too nervous about the procedure, she was given very little notice as to when it would be done. She arranged to keep her husband and son away and wrote a will and letters to them.
Nine months after the procedure she wrote a letter to her sister Esther, detailing all that had occurred. She also warned her sister and nieces not to wait as long as she had in seeking medical help.
A wine cordial was the only anesthesia given to her. In the salon of her home she waited until “my room, without previous message, was entered by 7 Men in black.” These were the doctors who were to do the procedure. They spoke in hushed tones and used hand signals to communicate with each other. Fanny interpreted the hand signals as meaning that they intended to remove the entire breast.
When Dr. Larrey asked the other physicians who would hold the breast, Fanny bravely said, “C’est moi, Monsieur! & I held my hand under it, & explained the nature of my sufferings, which all sprang from one point, though they darted into every part.” After seeing the “glitter of polished Steel” she “began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony.”
The operation lasted three hours and forty-five minutes, and according to her husband, the patient showed “un Grand courage.”
Frances Burney lived another 29 years after the surgery! The full account of the procedure, in her own words is quite graphic and not for the faint of heart. Her story dramatically brings to life how far breast cancer treatment has come and also reemphasizes the need for early diagnosis.
Copyright © 2010 by Michele R. Berman, MD. Used with permission
Portrait: Frances Burney — Madame d’Arblay (1782) by Edward Francisco Burney