Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that we will see at least 249,260 new cases of breast cancer in 2016, so it’s no wonder women and men who are at risk are taking drastic, preventative measures.
Preventative, bilateral mastectomies have become increasingly common, especially among young, highly educated women in this country. Many attribute the rise in this life-changing preventative measure to Angelina Jolie. However, while her decision to have a preventative bilateral mastectomy because she carries the BRCA-1 gene might have fueled the fire, it is far from the reason for the exponential increase.
According to the Susan G. Komen foundation, the first bilateral mastectomy spike actually happened closer to the turn of this century. Between 1998 and 2003, rates of contralateral prophylactic mastectomies in the United States more than doubled, from 1.8 to 4.5 percent. Now, a CPM is somewhat different from Jolie’s preventative bilateral mastectomy, because it involves the removal of both breasts when one is cancerous and one is not. Women seem to be opting for the removal of both breasts because they believe it will greatly reduce their risk of the cancer spreading or returning to the second, healthy breast. However, research shows that the survival rate of women with early stage breast cancer who opt for a lumpectomy versus those who opt for the full or even double mastectomy is the same.
Yet bilateral mastectomy rates are still climbing at a surprising rate. According to research recently published in Annals of Surgery, mastectomies performed on healthy breasts (either one or both) have more than tripled in the last decade alone. Mehra Golshan, M.D., lead author of the study, attributes the recent jump to two things: improved breast reconstruction and MRI technology, and the rise in testing for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes.
That last part we can, in a way, blame on Ms. Jolie. Those cancer-causing genes were not widely recognized until she explained how her connection to the latter was the reason behind her bilateral mastectomy. That said, she may have done the world a service, because women with either gene are at a much higher risk for developing cancer, and thus, in their case, a double mastectomy may actually improve their survival rates. According to Cancer.gov, such preventative surgical methods effectively reduce breast cancer risk in these gene-carrying patients by 95 percent.
However, if you don’t carry either gene, and you don’t have two or more close family members who’ve had breast cancer, getting a CPM is not really necessary. Dr. Golshan’s study says that if you have cancer in just one breast, the risk of it spreading to the other is less than 0.5 percent. This is why doctors rarely recommend them but rather push their patients toward a simple lumpectomy plus radiation. The procedure is much less invasive, there’s a much shorter recovery time, and you don’t have to go through the emotional upheaval of losing your breasts.
My mother is one such breast cancer survivor who opted for a lumpectomy on her one cancerous breast. She had the surgery and radiation more than 15 years ago and still remains healthy and cancer free. Moreover, her experience with cancer was far less life-altering than it may have been if she had opted for a single or double mastectomy.
Ladies, surgery is not easy on the body. Don’t opt for something so invasive if you don’t have to, especially if it goes against your doctor’s recommendations. Cancer research and surgical methods have improved dramatically over the past decade, so the need for this type of preventative method is dissipating. Please consider that before you go under the knife.