Nabby Adams was a distinguished woman and by the time she reached her 40’s, she seemed to have it all; a loving husband, three children, and a mom and dad whom she was very close to. Unfortunately, Nabby Adams would find a lump on her breast and receive the diagnosis that no woman ever wants to hear, “You have breast cancer. ” Despite her fears, she fought for her life and underwent a radical mastectomy. Over the next two years, she endured extreme physical and emotional pain and by age 49, breast cancer had claimed her life (60).
Nabby was raised in a prominent family of politicians (53). Named Abigail or “Nabby” for short, she was a child that was surrounded in the world of political discussions and talks of freedom, foreign policy, and American Independence to name a few (53). Her mother was Abigail Adams, one of the country’s most prominent women in early America and her father John Adams became the second U. S. President (53). Her brother, John Quincy Adams, went on to become the sixth U. S. President. Nabby was very close to her family, especially her father (53).
At Seventeen years old, Nabby’s father took a job in England as an ambassador (53). While in England, Nabby met and fell in love with Colonel William Smith (53). They were married after a short courtship (54). The two moved back to the United States where they had three children (54). It was in 1808 when Nabby noticed a dimple on her left breast (54). Nabby, in her 40’s, wondered what this dimple was, but assumed it was a sign that she was aging (52). She had no idea that beneath her skin, this dimple was actually the beginning of the cancer that would drastically shorten her life (53).
Over the next year, the dimple transformed into a hard lump beneath the skin and as much as Nabby tried to ignore it, the lump continued to grow (54). She went to her local healers who were unable to heal her (55). In February 1811, Nabby went to her local doctor who gave her devastating news. She had breast cancer (55). After writing home to her parents informing them of the cancer in her breast, they urged her to go to Boston and get a second opinion (55). Abigail Adams, Nabby’s mother, wrote a letter to her good friend and one of the country’s most prominent physicians, Dr.
Benjamin Rush, explaining Nabby’s condition (55). In the meantime, Nabby took her parents advice and went to the Boston to seek out medical advice (55). She saw four doctors whom all gave Nabby a clean bill of health (55). Dr. Benjamin Rush, however, responded to the letter Abigail Adams wrote and explained that because the malignant tumor was movable and not connected to the chest wall, it was more likely that the surgeon would be able to remove all of the cancer surrounding the tumor, thus reducing the likelihood that the cancer would spread (55).
He also stated that Nabby was in grave danger and her only chance at survival was to have her breast removed as soon as possible (57). Even in the early 1800’s, breast cancer was a widely known disease and doctors had been preforming mastectomies for centuries (57). Still, surgery was an absolute last resort option because anesthesia and pain medications were unheard of (56). The instruments that doctors used were not much more than what you would find in your kitchen today (57). Doctors did not understand bacteria and the need to wash their hands and work in a sterile environment so the dangers posed from infection was extremely high (56).
Most people would rather die that go through the horrifying experience of going “under the knife” (56). For those that survived surgery, many died days later from infection following surgery (56). Nevertheless, Nabby was a fighter and knew that if she wanted to live, she must take her chances and have the mastectomy. Nabby scheduled the operation for October 8, 1811 with the city’s best surgeon, Dr. John Warren (57). On the day of the surgery Nabby’s husband William, daughter Caroline, and mother Abigail, stood by her side (57). Dr.
Warren strapped Nabby’s body to a chair while assisting physicians held her left arm and pressed her shoulders and neck against the chair (57). Dr. Warren started cutting her breast. The pain was almost unbearable for Nabby and her family could not stand watching the gruesome ordeal or see her in horrific pain (58). Once the breast was completely severed, Dr. Warren removed it from her chest with a fork and unfortunately there was far more cancer than the he expected (58). Nabby had tumor tissue under her left armpit (58).
Dr. Warren pulled out as much of the tumor as he could find hoping he could clear her body of the cancer (58). The surgery took a mere twenty-five minutes to complete (58). Post-surgery, Nabby did not suffer from any life threatening infections; however, it took her seven months for her to feel good (58). Feeling healthy did not last long. Nabby started having headaches and severe back and abdomen pain (58). Her local doctor diagnosed it as Rheumatism, but when she felt the reoccurrence of tumors, she knew the cancer had returned (59). She also knew there was nothing more that could be done to spare her life.
Just two years after her mastectomy, at age 49, Nabby lost her life to breast cancer. It is hard to imagine the pain and suffering that Nabby Adams had to go through having breast cancer at a time when there were very few medical options to remove cancer. Reading this excerpt made me reflect on my own life and the lengths I would go to if I was in Nabby Adams place. Like Nabby, if I knew there was a glimmer of hope that would I survive and be able to spend more time with my family, I would take my chances and have the mastectomy.
Fortunately, I live in a time where breast cancer is not an automatic death sentence as it has been for 2000 years (52). Women today are more educated and know the steps to take to look for and/or try to prevent breast cancer. Modern medicine and cancer treatments have made breast cancer a disease that can be survived. Now women with breast cancer are given hope and a second chance at life. The last few years of Nabby Adam’s life were full of pain, fear, hope, and grief. When faced with breast cancer, Nabby bravely took her chances and underwent a radical mastectomy.
Two years after Nabby Adams horrific surgery, the cancer had returned and had taken her life. What Nabby or her doctors did not know then was that by the time she noticed the lump on her breast, her cancer had already spread through her body and was already far beyond the scope of removal (60). Breast cancer was a death sentence for most women in history and even though we now have treatments and higher breast cancer survival rates, one thing remains the same among all women; no woman ever wants to hear those devastating words, “You have breast cancer. ”