M. Vera Peters
Watching her own mother pass away from breast cancer directed much of the career of Dr. Vera Peters and helped her to develop new treatments using radiation therapies.
Earning her medical degree in 1934, she started working at Toronto General Hospital and studying Hodgkin’s lymphoma–a diagnosis which at the time was considered a death sentence. In 1950 Peters published a paper detailing that early stage Hodgkin’s patients could be cured with high dose radiation therapy. Her findings were met with resistance by the larger medical community at the time and she was told to “return to Toronto and do your women’s work.”
So she did, and turned her efforts toward the effectiveness of the standard treatment of breast cancer at the time–a radical mastectomy. This total removal of the breast tissue was compared to a breast conserving surgery known as a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatments for early stage breast cancer patients. What she found was that the combination methodology was just as, if not more, effective in eliminating the cancer without the emotional and physical toil of a total mastectomy.
Her findings were met with much skepticism, partly because of the idea that if the standard practice worked why change it, but secondly because she couldn’t do actual random sampling as that would require perfectly healthy women to undergo unnecessary mastectomies. The hospital she worked at adopted her methodology as it fit with their conservative approach to surgery but it wasn’t until 2002 that it was adopted as the worldwide standard of treatment.
One of the things that made her stand out from others in her field was her warmth and compassion, and her insistence that the patient be involved in the treatment decision making, not just told what to do by the doctor. She was also not one to argue, instead she let the science speak for itself, which sometimes meant that she didn’t receive the acknowledgments she deserved at the time for developing not one but two new treatment methods that would go on to save an untold number of lives.
Suggested By: Amy Keay
Written by Angela Goad