Try to match each diagnosis with the conditions photographed.

What is “cancer” to a trapper?

In some cases, a trapper may know just as much about the “cancer” that a friend is afflicted with as a doctor with several years of schooling under his belt.

This is because during the main trapper period of 1790 to 1850, cancer had yet to be accurately identified and defined.

This is a common part of plant medicine history that I like to bring up whenever I can.  Prior to the early-1900s, before radiology and histology were  well developed, it was hard for a physician to know what a condition known as cancer really is, and what kinds of tissue it consisted of pathologically.  Much of what doctors knew about “cancer” was based on post-mortum reviews, when they could be done.  Even then, it was hard at times to differentiate an aggressive deadly cancer from a benign aggressively growing tumor.  

Most of the public probably wanted nothing to do with autopsies and trying to understand the biology and appearance of some conditions known as cancer versus all others.  During the 1820s and 1830s, the peak period in trapping culture and history, cancer and canker were often pretty much used interchangeably except by the more well-trained scientist or doctor.  This led to a number of historical “cancer” remedies becoming misconstrued as modern cancer treatments.  Once upon a time you could put a rhubarb on your tumor or growth and know that within a few days the remedy was going to chew through your skin and open up the swollen tissue beneath, allowing whatever was in there causing that problem to finally leave the diseased tissue it is in.  Well this isn’t exactly an example of rhubarb treating a malignant tumor undergoing rapid cell divisions and distributing itself about the body in order to form tumors elsewhere in the flesh.  This is simply an example of someone taking a fairly acidic and caustic herb and using it to chew away flesh, in order to allow the pus to drain out and the infected tissues to resolve themselves and cause the swelling to go down.  In the most basic sense of how cancer is typically seen and referred to in the body, this latter treatment ideology is the one in use, and the chances are the “cancer” being discussed one of many common problems out there resembling true cancer.

In the illustration prepared for this discussion, there are three true cancers displayed and the rest are other types of medical problems, many of which can be associated with the life of trappers and mountainmen.

Now I admit I am not being complete fair about this.  Some of these medical problems a trapper is obviously going to be able to diagnosis for himself, and have more than just pictures to work with.   The most basic examples of these are the burn blister and poison ivy, as well as perhaps the long time building psoriasis of the legs and elbows, or the wart that’s been there since he was a kid.  Other conditions that look like cancer on the outside will be well-known due to their well-defined behavior patterns as disease. 

 The Measles and Small Pox for example a trapper is certainly going to recognize, and probably know the differences between.  The same could be said for the sty and cold sore perhaps, or the whitlow’s tumor of the nailbed.  But differentiating these from cancer requires a little more knowledge and experience for the trapper to be sure.  For example, it would not be a surprise if a trapper ever asked himself  ‘Is this Whitlow’s Tumor a “cancer”, or about to become one?’

For whitlow’s tumor, a trapper who has worked with animals and a farm for quite some time, or placed his hands too often in a bed of rotten firewood wood to pick up an old log for the fireplace, will probably more than once get the paronychial inflammation of his nail bed due to infection by a bacterium, an animalcule he will probably never learn about.  He’ll have the experience to know this is something that hopefully will pass and not get to be too painful.  The same could be said for the two cold sores perhaps, and almost certainly the complaint about a sty in the eye. 

If we now go up one level in difficulty for knowing your diseases and their differences, sticking with the skin infection problems sometimes likened to “cancer” for a moment, The sexually transmitted diseases are a problem, with the chancre due to syphilis being a condition that only the trapper would know about and understand due to where the symptoms lie.   But the Herpes whitlow in the finger is a totally new form of whitlow’s tumor–one that will behave differently than the traditional, a condition that someone like the trapper is going to have to pay attention to–‘this could be the real cancer’ he might be saying to himself.  Likewise there are going to be some fairly big issues with staph infections.  If this wasn’t already a problem during one of the past occupations, it will most certainly become a problem once the animals have to be cut for their hides or the pelts piled up neatly in a good place for storage until the next rendezvous.  

Likewise the “Giant Cell Tumor”, which really isn’t a tumor at all, could become a problem for trappers due to all the handicraft work he is doing.  This condition sets in when you use your joints in your hands repeatedly for the same tasks, again and again causing the nerves to stop working correctly and the places where a nerve passes through a joint, like in the wrist, to swell up.  If such a thing as an occupational disease was ever noted for trappers, this could be one of them for long-lived trappers, placed alongside bear claw gashes, cut hands and fingers, broken bones from accidentally activating a trap, or the loss of a leg due to a tree fall.

The remaining sets of diseases in the pictures above are unusual infectious diseases and long term chronic disease consequences of growing old with some medical condition, a condition which sent you into the mountains for in the first place.

Next there is the  problems with gnats, mosquitoes and ticks.  The first one isn’t so much a problem.  But the mosquitoes can make you sicker if they are carrying anything.  In the right places, they’ll usually just give you one of several kinds of fevers–the intermittent, remittent and constant.   But none of these are on my list.  The mosquito can also give you leishmaniasis, if you were in the right settings since it is not really found much in North America.  But if you got it, this would certainly give you a decaying ulcer in the skin, or even the ear and nose, causing these parts to begin to swell, redden, get significantly deformed, and they start to slough off of your body.  Now that would most likely be called an aggressive form of “cancer.”

The tick is going to give you mountain fever as a trapper.  This kind of fever comes a few days after passing through the Idaho and Wyoming high elevation regions mostly. (Back then this is pretty much where these ticks were kept isolated by nature.)  But the spotted fever will get to you and you will know it due to the fever and the skin rash you are getting.  Usually you rule this out as a problem that has nothing to do with “cancer,” since most trappers and mountainmen are very familiar with this malady, by story or experience.  But you could have a problem if someone asked you to describe the difference between this and the other spotted fever back east, along with the small pox or measles. 

Next there is the Chigger bite, another bite that even though the beast that caused it can never be found, you pretty much know what this is after an event or two.  Ringworm, tularemic ulcer, and anthrax you get mostly from dealing with farm animals.  The ringworm from any number of beasts, even some from the wild, the tularemic ulcer you get from poorly cooked pigs, the anthrax from cattle.  These are most certainly not “cancers” or ulcers that you want to get.

Now we are left with two other highly infectious diseases–erysipelas and diphtheria.  These you get from other people, due to visiting a fort or trading post, or some school where parents and kids hand out.  The third, which seems the same, is Lupus; this problem is not as easy to catch.

When the erysipelas comes, you skin feels red-hot, gets a little dry, and a very bright red.  This is one disease you don’t have much of an explanation for based on your belief in weather and climate as the means to prevent these sort of things.  This is probably a condition that you blame on your last trip to the fort or saloon, or perhaps the lady you spent the night with, or the last animal to infect you with its bite. 

The lupus you will probably think of as the same, but only a little less of a problem.  You may not even call this medical problem anything specific, since these two conditions are pretty much the same thing, only with one worse than the other.

The diphtheria at first feels like a sore throat, but with time it gets worse and worse until you can no longer breathe.  Then you have a problem.  If you make it through the major phases of this disease then things are okay.  But it can also just leave you sitting there, in agony with the sore throat and inability to breathe until blisters break out on your neck, and your skins gets very red.  You can then treat this with a plaster or some formula using bear grease as its base.  I would not recommend any “cancer” remedies.  This is the main disease that helped lead to the later discovery of the tracheotomy–cutting a hole in the neck until the sore throat loses its sloughing off skin.

There are a bunch of reddened skin conditions that seem to relate.  The erythema multiform is much like to erysipelas, only it is not at all hot and it doesn’t make you feel sensitive to the touch.  Overall, it is hard to tell if these diseases are all different from one another, or if some are the same problem but at different levels of severity.  The erythema could progress to measles or small pox, but only in those who haven’t had these yet–mostly the Indians.  Some skin reddening problems do get worse and develop ulcers, some of which become very sore, some almost gangrene (diabetes staph and gangrene).  Generally speaking, living the life of a trapper-mountainman, you are much less likely to get any of these last two.  I say that because these conditions are really save for those who are well off with land, buildings and money, and have the time and money to spend buying all those fancy unhealthy foods.  A lot of them get very heavy from their way of living.  In no way could a trapper manage both his horse and his work were he to be anything like these rich men.

That covers everything except for three things you’ll only see on occasion in passing.  These cancers (the true ones) are nothing to worry about.  They don’t behave as bad as the rashes, they only occasionally itch and bleed, they are not hot like erysipelas, they have nothing to do with things like measles and small pox, and usually have less symptoms and problem attached to them than most of the other conditions mentioned.   These are problems to ignore, since they won’t get the best of you–at least you won’t ever see them cause that to happen.  Or so a real doctor for this time might say.