A retrospective study just released in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggests that the rate of U.S. women choosing to have both breasts removed after finding cancer in one breast more than doubled from 1998 to 2003.
The researchers used cancer registry data to look at women with unilateral (one-sided) breast cancer over a 6-year period and analyzed information such as cancer stage, tumor size, and the type of surgical procedures performed. 11 percent of women who had a mastectomy in 2003 elected to go ahead and have “contralateral prophylactic mastectomy” – removing the non-affected breast as a preventive measure – compared with 4.2 percent in 1998.
It’s easy enough to understand why breast cancer patients might not want to take the chance on having cancer develop later in the second breast or go through additional mammograms and biopsies. However, while a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy might reduce future cancer risk, there is very little evidence that it actually reduces the risk of dying from the disease. Interviewed for the New York Times, lead study author Dr. Julie Gralow stated:
For the vast majority of our patients, this does not impact the chances of dying of breast cancer, and that’s the key thing here. My first reaction to this study, because it came as a bit of a surprise, was, ‘Oh, are we doing our job explaining that point to patients?’ We want to support women in doing what feels right to them. But our job is to make sure they have all the accurate information.”
For more information on preventive mastectomy, see this set of questions and answers from the National Cancer Institute