Ladies of Courage: Breast Cancer Survivors Then … and Now

Written by Holly Mengel on October 27th, 2010

I recently finished processing the Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and while doing a little research for the biographical note on these amazing family members, I discovered that Susanna Dillwyn Emlen was a breast cancer survivor. She had surgery in 1814 and survived for 5 years before her death in 1819. The cause of her death is unknown.

Unknown size: small.

Susanna’s illness is only mentioned in the last few folders of this extraordinary collection of correspondence between Susanna and her husband Samuel Emlen, Jr. and her father William Dillwyn, but the raw emotion in the letters brought tears to my eyes. It is hard to imagine how frightened and worried Susanna, her husband and her father must have been about this mysterious disease. I am sure that today, despite all the facts, the scans and the treatments, fear and worry still rival hope in the day-to-day coping of this illness. For a very detailed overview of Susanna’s experiences, see Women and Health in America, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt (2nd edition).

Unknown size: small.

Susanna discovered her tumor, the size of a “partridge egg,” in December of 1813, but only told her husband after several weeks and decided to try some treatments advised by her aunt which included a salve. Only after much thought and family discussion did she decide to even consult a physician. Dr. Philip Sing Phyick, the father of surgery in America, was a brother-in-law of Samuel and Susanna; and once he was consulted, he urged Susanna to consider surgery. Susanna did decide to have the surgery which was performed by Dr. Physick and four other doctors. She describes to her father the events which led up to the surgery and how her “whole being was absorbed in pain” which was “severe beyond expression.”

Unknown size: small.

Perhaps one of the factors of Susanna’s recovery was the support she received from her friends and family. One of my favorite parts of this collection is the overwhelming love that shines through the formal writing and the physical distance separating Susanna and Samuel Emlen from William Dillwyn who was living in England. The collection begins with Susanna’s “dear father’s first letter to [her]” in 1770. The first letters are written to a child, but their relationship evolves despite rarely seeing each other. Their letters are full of affection and news of family, friends, and neighbors. Susanna describes in vivid detail the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, her father writes of abolition, and their Quaker beliefs are evident throughout the letters. In 1794, Samuel Emlen Jr. asks William Dillwyn’s permission to marry Susanna and receives it, and thereafter, is included in the correspondence.

With love and encouragement from family, neighbors, and fellow Quakers, Susanna’s support system was strong. However, she also possessed an immense strength of her own which helped her face her fear, address the “momentous question” and opt for surgery, and then fight to survive an operation without anesthesia. Susanna Emlen was amazing! So, I would like to raise an imaginary glass (libations not being smiled upon when working in close proximity to the collections) to all the women of today (especially someone very special at the Library Company of Philadelphia) and yesterday who found, and continue to find, the strength to fight breast cancer … and win.

 

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