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Removing Healthy Breast Tissue does Little to Fight Risk of Breast Cancer, Study Suggests

Jul 21, 2014

It has become increasingly common for women with cancer in one breast to undergo a prophylactic or preventative mastectomy, which is the removal of the healthy breast as a precaution. According to a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, however, the survival benefit of doing this is less than one percent.

"We found fairly convincing evidence that there really is no meaningful long-term survival benefit for the vast majority of women with breast cancer by having their opposite breast removed," said Dr. Todd Tuttle, a researcher in the study and chief of surgical oncology at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. According to HealthDay, he stated that "Most patients have very minimal increases in life expectancy, one to seven months," spread out over 20 years or longer, particularly in younger women.

To conduct the study, Tuttle and his team gathered data for over 100,000 women with stage I or stage II breast cancers and tracked survival for more than 20 years. A model was then used to simulate survival results in women who preemptively had healthy breast tissue removed compared to those who did not.

Factors such as quality of life, surgical complications, or fear driving the decision to have a preventive mastectomy were not included in the analysis.

Importantly, the women included in the study did not have the breast cancer genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, women who have these genes are significantly more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer and preventative surgeries to remove the breast and ovaries are frequently discussed.

Some recent studies suggest that unsubstantiated fears prompt women to have their healthy breast removed. One study looked at women under 40 who chose this procedure; only 18 percent thought the removal would boost survival although 94 percent said they wanted to boost survival.

Tuttle says that as a physician, he has encountered many women who are interested in preventative mastectomy because they are afraid of cancer developing. According to HealthDay, many patients tell him "I am going to have my other breast removed for peace of mind." to which he replies "It's really a false sense of security." He stated that overall survival depends on "whether the original cancer spread, not whether you get a new one."

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