The Hall

M. Vera Peters 1911-1993

I was born in 1911 on a dairy farm near Toronto. My father died when I was young—this had a profound impact on me. I knew that there wasn’t anything I could do, but from this early age I understood that education would enable me, in time, to help others. I began to take my education seriously, and excelled.

When I was in university, my mother developed breast cancer. The only proposed treatment was a mastectomy. Later, when her cancer recurred, Dr. Gordon Richards treated her with radiation therapy. He treated the whole patient—not just the disease. I was inspired by this approach.

During my medical apprenticeship at the Toronto General Hospital, I studied Hodgkin’s disease—a then-incurable cancer. My research showed that the cancer progressed along a predictable path, and could be treated successfully with carefully-targeted radiation. The idea that anyone could be cured of Hodgkin’s disease was revolutionary. When I published my results in 1950, many in the medical community called my findings “outrageous.” They went so far as to say that it was cruel to give false hope to patients who would ultimately die of their disease.

In 1958, I shifted my focus to breast cancer. Over the years I had treated many patients, for whom traditional mastectomies were not possible, with radiation therapy. I found that these patients were living just long as those who were treated with full mastectomies. I spent nine years analysing 7000 patient records on my own time, and found no difference in the 5-year survival rates for patients treated with a lumpectomy and radiation, compared to those who underwent a mastectomy.

Once again, many refused to believe my findings. The full mastectomy was widely accepted as the best possible option for treating breast cancer—my research challenged this norm. It took years for my findings to gain acceptance, but when they did less-invasive breast cancer treatments became the norm.

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