Diana Zuckerman, PhD, and Megan Polanin, PhD, National Center for Health Research
When Angelina Jolie publicly announced her double mastectomy in 2013, she was praised for possibly saving many women’s lives. But we know more today than we did then and experts now agree that too many women are undergoing unnecessary mastectomies. Here are the facts.
A review of 10 studies found that the risk of getting breast cancer for an average woman with BRCA1 is 57%. The risk is 49% for a woman with BRCA2. Keep in mind that for younger women, the lifetime risk of breast cancer is very different from the risk of getting breast cancer in the next 10 years or even 20 years. According to experts, a 40-year-old woman with the BRCA1 gene has a 14% chance of getting breast cancer before she turns 50. That is not nearly as frightening, and with regular screening and all the progress in breast cancer treatments, the survival rate from breast cancer is higher than ever. Many breast cancer patients live long and healthy lives.
Most women are diagnosed with breast cancer at early stages, making it safe to undergo a lumpectomy (which removes just the cancer) rather than a mastectomy (which removes the entire breast). Yet American women are undergoing prophylactic mastectomies at a higher rate than women in other countries — many of them medically unnecessary. Breast cancer experts believe that many women undergoing mastectomies do not need them and are getting them out of fear, not because of the actual risks.
In recent years, we have seen an increase in women with early-stage breast cancer choosing to get a double mastectomy. For example, a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University reported that, for women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in one breast, the rates of double mastectomy increased from 2% to 11% from 1998 to 2011. Researchers found that decisions to have a double mastectomy increased more for two groups of women: 1) Women with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) where there are abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast that won’t spread and aren’t dangerous and 2) Women with cancer only in the breast that has not spread to the lymph nodes.
This year, researchers from Emory University and colleagues published a study focused on women diagnosed with early-state breast cancer in one breast. They found that, from 2004 to 2012, the percentage of these women 45 years or older who got double mastectomies more than doubled from 4% to 10%. For women ages 20-44, the percentage tripled from 11% to 33%. Researchers found that it mattered where women lived in the United States. For example, in five Midwestern states (Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, and South Dakota), 42% of the women who got surgery decided to get a double mastectomy.
For many years, experts have known that women who undergo lumpectomies for a non-invasive condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or for early-stage breast cancer live just as long as women undergoing mastectomies. However, the latest research goes a step further: a study conducted in the Netherlands of more than 37,000 women with early-stage breast cancer found that the women undergoing lumpectomies were more likely to be alive 10 years later than women with the same diagnosis who underwent a single or double mastectomy. They were also less likely to have died of breast cancer.
In 2016, Harvard cancer surgeon Dr. Mehra Golshan published a study of almost half a million women with breast cancer in one breast. She reported that those undergoing double mastectomies did not live longer than women undergoing a mastectomy in only one breast.
These are just the most recent studies. For more information about the many studies that show the benefits of less radical surgery, see this article.
The bottom line is that women with DCIS or early-stage breast cancer have more effective and less radical treatment options than mastectomy. We need to stop thinking of mastectomy as the “brave” choice and understand that the risks and benefits of mastectomy are different for every woman with cancer or the risk of cancer. In breast cancer, any reasonable treatment choice is the brave choice.
The research clearly shows that mastectomies are not the best choice for most women if they want to live longer. Women should be aware of treatment choices for breast cancer and encouraged to make decisions based on their own unique situations. For each woman, it is important to weigh her own risk of cancer — in the next few years, and not just over her lifetime – and the risks of various treatments. Each woman should make the decision that is best for her, based on the facts, not on fear.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
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