Breast cancer is a harrowing ordeal for most women and if fighting for their lives isn't consuming enough, many are forced to make difficult life-or-death decisions like how to treat their cancer. Women are generally offered three options: a lumpectomy to remove the tumor, combined with radiation; a single mastectomy; or a double mastectomy.
Lopping off both breasts is the most radical choice but the surgery has been rapidly increasing in popularity as many women are deciding they'd rather be safe than sorry. However, a new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has found that having a double mastectomy does not increase survival rates.
The study looked at 200,000 women with breast cancer in California and was the first to compare the survival rates of the three main treatments. The researchers found that currently about 85 percent of women with breast cancer live at least five years or longer and that remained the same whether the women had chosen the lumpectomy/radiation route or the double mastectomy.
Patients who got a single mastectomy fared slightly worse but the study authors theorize that is because lower-income women more often choose that option and therefore also have a more difficult time following up and getting good care afterwards.) This is hard news for women who just want to do whatever it takes to keep the cancer from returning.
But the study authors are quick to say that all double mastectomies aren't pointless. They wrote that for women who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation or have a strong family history of the disease the precautionary surgery may be an effective choice. Angelina Jolie is the most famous example of using the double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. She underwent the surgery last year after discovering she was positive for the BRCA1 gene. Having the gene made her 85 percent more likely to get breast cancer, the disease that took her mother's life at a young age. After the surgery her risk is now less than five percent — very good news for her brand-new husband Brad Pitt and their six children.
Rather, the authors say that the main takeaway is that doctors should steer patients to the more conservative treatment first for women who already have breast cancer — especially those who only have it in one breast. Why have more surgery than you need? And now we have proof that for most women a double mastectomy is not necessary.
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