Removal of Healthy Breast in Cancer Patients: Overtreatment or Peace of Mind?

More and more women with cancer in one breast are now opting to have the other healthy breast removed as well, even though the statistics show survival odds don’t improve by having both breasts removed and most patients end up with chests that are numb to sensation.

Peace of mind is cited by many of these cancer patients for their decision.

A new report by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times details this trend, and the Times’ “Well” blog has a number of interesting comments from women and cancer experts.

As many as three in ten breast cancer surgeries in large urban cancer centers are for preventive removal of the healthy breast, the Times reported.

But what is prevented, exactly?

The only women who get a very slight survival bump from having their healthy breast removed are patients under age 50 who have estrogen-negative cancers that don’t respond to drugs like Tamoxifen. For everyone else, there is no real advantage in having the second breast removed. When the second breast gets cancer, as happens sometimes, that is not “spread” from the original cancer but is a new, unrelated cancer.

The real risk that women face from the original cancer is that it has already spread beyond the breast, but removal of the second breast doesn’t help that risk.

The most striking evidence of how afraid of cancer women are is with DCIS: ductal carcinoma in situ, which is not even considered true cancer by many experts because it either disappears or never progresses in two-thirds of women. Yet still many women with DCIS are electing to have not just the one breast removed, but both.

Ultimately, this is an intensely personal decision. But it helps to get the true facts first.

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