Cancer and the Gendered Body : Ravenous Natures

Breeding a tumour: cancer and female pathology

That women were more likely than men to suffer from cancerous disease was a commonplace in early modern medical and popular understandings of the malady. Exactly why this should be the case, however, remains to be explored, and I contend that women’s susceptibility to cancers was explained in terms of their sex-specific pathology, and in particular, their peculiar anatomy. The uterus, the female breasts and the connection between them provided a fertile environment for cancers to grow, flourish and even mimic that most paradigmatically female of bodily states, pregnancy.Arguably the driver behind all ‘feminine’ cancers, as well as a host of other female-specific disorders, was one mysterious and much-discussed organ, the womb. Fundamental to generation, and remaining ‘secret’ within the body, the womb, as Katherine Park asserts, ‘appeared as a – arguably the – privileged object of dissection in medical images and texts’.Matthew Cobb and Monica Green likewise observe that unlocking the secrets of the female reproductive system seemed for early modern anatomists and medical practitioners a sure route to understanding the mysteries of generation more generally.While they were consistently fascinated by this organ, however, medical texts also reflected cultural ambivalence about the status of the womb, and in particular one of its main functions, menstruation. On one hand, it was widely accepted that, as Stolberg points out, menstruation provided a system by which excess humours, gathered in the womb, could be expelled from the body, thus preventing illness.Haemorrhoidal bleeding in men was commonly viewed as an imitation of that process, as were periodic nosebleeds.On the other hand, however, most medical practitioners believed that women only required such a system because of the lack of perfecting heat in their bodies, which was inadequate for the full concoction or perfection of the blood.In Stolberg’s words, ‘[T]he need for menstruation, not the evacuation itself, was pathological’.While menstruation might be a healthy process, menstrual blood was sometimes – particularly prior to the seventeenth century – viewed as excremental and noxious, to the point that certain medical writers believed the proximity of a menstruating woman could kill plants, sour milk and cause infants to become sick.Furthermore, throughout the early modern period, the womb was commonly viewed as an unreliable organ, prone to dysfunctions which threatened not only the woman, but her unborn children, her family and society at large. The terms in which these dysfunctions were presented were often lurid, explicitly depicting the womb as a negative, though necessary, constituent of the feminine body, which was partly independent of the woman in whom it ‘resided’. In 1636, for example, John Sadler wrote in The Sick Woman’s Private Looking-Glasse – purportedly aimed at a female audience – that ‘from the wombe comes convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseyes, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to be short, there is no disease so ill but may procede from the evill quality of it’.Still more dramatically, a translated work by the French physician Jean Riolan, printed in 1657, insisted that.

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