I was disturbed to read that a recent study shows that a high percentage of American women with cancer in one breast opt to have their healthy breast removed as well.
The percentages vary by state. But in five neighboring states, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa and South Dakota, about half of breast cancer patients opt for this double mastectomy. In other states, the percentages ranged from 14 percent to as much as 58 percent. But rates of these optional double mastectomies increased across all ages and states: from 3.5 percent to 10.4 percent in women older than 45, and from 10.4 percent to 33.3 percent in women younger than 45.
The American Society of Breast Surgeons recommends against removing the healthy breast (in most cases), but many breast cancer patients do it anyway. The surgeon who did my lumpectomy—Shelley Hwang, now a professor at Duke University in North Carolina—reacted to the study, telling The New York Times, “Women are making this decision out of anxiety rather than medical necessity.”
I understand how these women feel. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt like I should take a kitchen knife and just cut my breasts off then and there. I wanted the cancer OUT. I didn’t want to wait for second opinions. I didn’t want to wait for more tests. I didn’t want to wait several weeks until surgery could be scheduled.
Luckily, calmer minds, including Dr. Hwang’s, prevailed. I did have tests, and second opinions, and time to prepare for surgery. And as I learned more about breast cancer, I read of cases of breast cancer that can recur along mastectomy scars. This is one of the reasons, I imagine, that breast surgeons recommend again removing a breast with no sign of breast cancer.
In America, we want the all-you-can-eat plan. We want the best, the most, the strongest.
But more isn’t always better. Sometimes, it can even be worse.
So, just remember to take a deep breath as you decide upon a treatment plan with your doctors. Don’t decide in the panic of first diagnosis. Take your time, listen to your medical team, and plot the course that’s best for you.