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Breast cancer lead to the Persian invasion of Greece: A rebuttal to Herodotus.

Posted: 03 Nov 2023, 22:42
by Sycorax
Atossa. Daughter of Cyrus, wife of Darius (who were the successive rulers of the Achaemenid empire).

In the middle of her reign around 500 BC or so, Atossa notices a mass growing in her breast which become erythematous and then begins to bleed. Hers is among the first recorded cases of mastitis or some other kind of inflammatory breast cancer. If I recall correctly, Imhotep was the first physician to record cancer in any capacity, but Atossa is the first case of cancer where we have an identity attached to the sufferer.

As she was a queen, she could have summoned the best physicians from anywhere in her vast empire. But she did not. She instead wrapped herself up in a sheet and isolated herself. I would assume some of Darius's doctors tried to treat her but evidently she declined their help if it was offered, or whatever they did was not helpful. Eventually her slave, a Greek man called Democedes, was permitted to excise her tumor, which is possible the first recorded case of mastectomy or lumpectomy. This procedure was a success (at least temporarily. We now know mastectomy is not an ideal way to treat breast cancer and she probably would have had disease recurrence and then died of recurrence but...that's speculation).

Meanwhile, Darius has been planning a campaign against those pesky Scythians, who were on the eastern borders of the empire. Atossa successfully convinced her husband to turn his whole campaign around and go to the west, to conquer Greece instead. But why?

Perhaps she was pleased with the medical care offered by her Greek slave and was curious about what other medical wonders these people could perform. Babylonian medicine primarily involved a lot of magic and ritual and spells, with little to no scientific process behind it. Medical treatment could be offered by both a physician or a magician, but they used the same texts and chants. Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, did not regard disease as being of supernatural origin and were instead developing a system of medical empiricism to heal the sick.

Perhaps she was grateful to Democedes and therefore listened when he said he wanted to go back home to Greece.

This turn from east to west and the subsequent series of Greco-Persian wars was one of the definitive moments in the early history of the West. Herodotus (that effin' liar) suggests that Atossa convinced Darius to go to Greece because she wanted female Greek slaves. I find that suggestion to be lacking and superficial. Atossa was not just some power-hungry, single-minded villainous queen. It is far too easy and common to excuse her motives (and the motives of other powerful women) as nothing more than a power-grab. I suspect she was actually motivated by quality medical care.

In conclusion: Breast cancer perhaps caused the Greco-Persian Wars, or at least it was a major contributing factor.