Napoleon and Hereditary Cancer

Morgan Simmons

Hereditary cancer syndromes are those cancers that predispose families to develop certain types of cancer.
In 2013, Angelina Jolie announced she had a BRCA1 mutation that makes her predisposed to breast cancer. Following her decision to undergo a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy in 2013, it has been suggested that the rate of BRCA testing rose 64% in the two weeks after her announcement. This was called the “Angelina Effect.”
The idea that cancers can be hereditary has been discussed for centuries. In 1801, the Society for Investigating Nature questioned whether there could be a hereditary component to cancer. They felt that if evidence could prove that cancer was hereditary, then it could be prevented. And if there was no evidence supporting its inheritance, then that would provide relief for family members as well.
Earlier this year, researchers speculated that Napoleon Bonaparte died due to a hereditary form of stomach cancer.
In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte consulted his doctor about gastric problems. In 1811, Napoleon obtained a copy of his father’s autopsy records that revealed his father died from cancer in his pylorus – the opening from the stomach into the small intestine. Napoleon asked his doctor for an anatomy lessons so he could better understand his father’s death. 

When a patient understands an illness, it’s easier for that person to fight.
Napoleon’s health further declined and he died in 1820. It is said that the emperor often talked about cancer and prior to his death, he demanded an autopsy be performed and his stomach be examined.
“He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat,” said Bonaparte. His very quote about battle could also pertain to his health concerns.
The autopsy results could to be compared to his father’s and could also provide valuable information for his brother Louis. Further research determined that almost all his family, except for his brothers Louis and Joseph, eventually contracted cancer.
In 1998, Parry Guildford and his team first described mutations in the E-cadherin (CDH1) gene to be responsible for the development of diffuse gastric cancer in 3 Maori tribal families in New Zealand.
Today, researchers believe that may have been the cause of the hereditary cancers in Napoleon’s family.
For more information about hereditary diffuse gastric cancer, visit ThinkGenetic or the No Stomach for Cancer group.
Image of Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814, by Paul Delaroche.
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