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Study Shows Many Women Needlessly Sacrificing Healthy Breasts Out of Fear

Study Shows Many Women Needlessly Sacrificing Healthy Breasts Out of Fear
April 06
13:48 2017

Breast cancer is a serious disease and has taken the lives of countless women. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation:

  • One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
  • Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women.
  • Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women.
  • Each year it is estimated that over 246,660 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 will die.
  • Although breast cancer in men is rare, an estimated 2,600 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and approximately 440 will die each year.
  • On average, every 2 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and 1 woman will die of breast cancer every 13 minutes.

Perhaps, the one ray of sunshine in an otherwise depressing list of statistics is:

  • Over 2.8 million breast cancer survivors are alive in the United States today.

The fear of getting breast cancer is very real and can be something that weighs heavily on the minds of millions of women, especially if there is a family history of breast cancer. While it’s not a fear for my wife, she never forgets that her older sister has had breast cancer in both breasts.

Some women are genetically prone to developing breast cancer. It has been linked to mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Women found to have those mutations have a much greater chance of developing breast cancer. Consequently, some women are deciding to take drastic proactive action to avoid developing breast cancer by having both of their breasts removed before any signs of cancer are detected. This is now being referred to as the ‘Angelina Jolie effect’, named after the actress who had both breasts removed after learning that she carried the mutation.

But what about women who do not have the mutation? Researchers have found that after being diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, a growing number of women are opting to have their other healthy breast removed as a preventative. This is known as ‘contralateral prophylactic mastectomy’ and is not recommended by most doctors, especially if the woman does not have either of the gene mutations.

But is having the other healthy breast removed making any difference? Ahmedin Jemal of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, stated:

“The use of contralateral prophylactic mastectomies (CPMs) among patients with invasive unilateral breast cancer has increased substantially during the past decade in the United States despite the lack of evidence for survival benefit.”

Mehra Golshan from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who co-authored a 2015 study stated:

“I wasn’t surprised, because I see it every day in my practice – but it is somewhat concerning. Double mastectomy isn’t without risks, especially when you have reconstruction, too – which the majority of women choose to do. And it doesn’t increase your chance of surviving the cancer, because breast cancer is unlikely to spread to the other breast.”

Lisa Newman, from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit added:

“These surgical options do not provide any survival advantage. We as physicians must ensure that [patients] understand that the more extensive surgery has a higher complication rate; that it is risk-reducing but not risk-eliminating; and that it does not improve likelihood of curative treatment for the initially diagnosed breast cancer.”

A study recently published in JAMA Surgery also found that there seems to be a correlation on which state a woman lives in on whether or not, and her decision of having the contralateral prophylactic mastectomy performed after discovering breast cancer in one breast:

“The proportion of women ages 20 to 44 who opted for contralateral mastectomy rose about 11 percent to about 33 percent across the country, Reuters reported. There was also an increase in women age 45 and older who had both breasts removed over the same time period. Though previous medical advisories have discouraged such practice among women with one-sided, or unilateral, breast cancer who don’t have a genetic or family risk for the disease, the rates were consistently highest in women ages 20 to 44.”

“However, when broken down by region, researchers found during the last two years of the study, more than 40 percent of women in that age range who lived in South Dakota, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Maine and Montana chose to have both breasts removed. In New Hampshire, Delaware, New Jersey, Louisiana, Idaho, Alaska, South Carolina, Nevada, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, the rates were less than 25 percent.”

Although the thought of developing cancer in the other breast can and does weigh heavily on the minds of many women, having the other, healthy breast removed as a preventative measure seems to be no difference on overall survival rates. Some doctors believe that far too many women are sacrificing healthy breasts because of fear, not because of necessity. Think long and hard, talk to medical professionals before you decide to sacrifice something so near and dear to so many women, and you may be sacrificing for no real reason other than a sense of hope.

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