Many women recall actress Angelina Jolie speaking out about her double mastectomy as a preventative measure for potentially reducing her risk of developing breast cancer. However, this decision sparked a national conversation as to whether or not this treatment option was actually successful in prevention.1 Additionally, many females have begun asking their doctors if they should follow in Jolie's footsteps.
Survey of young women
Dr. Shoshana Rosenberg led a group of researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in a study to see why young breast cancer patients were opting for what many call needless mastectomies. Information was collected from 123 women who had both breasts removed following a cancer diagnosis in just one of their breasts. Each of the participants was younger than the age of 40.2
Professionals inquired as to why the patients chose to have double mastectomies, how informed they were during the decision making process and their levels of satisfaction two years following the procedures. In most of cases, the women were aware that removing the healthy breast was unnecessary and did not reduce their risk for a second cancer diagnosis.
Rosenberg further researched the reasons for these women to knowingly have unnecessary surgeries. Ninety percent of them did so to decrease their risk of cancer in the future and 95 percent also listed "peace of mind" as their top reason. Additionally, 94 percent indicated that they wanted to improve their chances for survival.3 This is with the knowledge that a mere 2 to 4 percent of women with cancer in one breast develop it in their other breast.
"I inform [patients] very plainly that this isn't likely to improve survival, and women still want to have the breast removed," Dr. Marissa Howard-McNatt, a surgical oncologist, explained to LiveScience. "It is a fear factor that's driving them; it truly is a fear of recurrence – they specifically say, 'I don't want to go through this again.'"
This is not the first time that health care professionals have taken a look at reasoning behind double mastectomies in these types of patients. At the University of Michigan, associate professor Sarah Hawley conducted similar research and uncovered the same findings.
"Their findings are consistent with ours, in that desire to prevent cancer in the non-affected breast is a big reason patients reported getting [contralateral prophylactic mastectomy]," Hawley told News 24.4
Both sets of investigation uncovered that a number of women are not swayed by the information that a double mastectomy does not reduce their risk of having to face cancer in the future. Hawley feels as though it's necessary to better educate patients on the risks and benefits (or lack of) when it comes to preventative surgeries. However, considering the stress and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis, it is important for patients to do what best suits them.
What does affect breast cancer
There are a number of things that may increase or reduce a woman's risk for developing breast cancer. This can include genetics, lifestyle, and simply chance.5 Although it is mostly out of the patient's control, there are some aspects of a diet that may play an important role in one's risk. For instance:
- High-fat dairy products contain estrogen that may fuel hormone-related cancers.
- Chemicals that are found in green tea may reduce tumor cell growth in breast cancer patients.
- Cancer survivors may benefit from the plant estrogen isoflavones that is found in soybeans and sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
- Research shows that an increased intake of fish-type omega-3 fatty acids lowers an individual's risk for breast cancer by 14 percent.
1 ABC News, "Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy fueling national debate" June 4, 2013
2 Medical News Today, "Fear drives young cancer patients to needless mastectomies" September 17, 2013
3 LiveScience, "Some women undergo unnecessary double mastectomies" September 16, 2013
4 News24.com, "Risk of contralateral breast cancer overestimated" September 17, 2013
5 LiveScience, "6 foods that may affect breast cancer risk" July 9, 2013