Doctors concerned over uptick in women seeking mastectomies

There has been a significant increase in the number of women requesting double mastectomies after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Some people are even calling it “the Angelina effect” after Angelina Jolie, who had a double mastectomy after finding out she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. The BRCA1 gene increases the risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Jolie explained in an op-ed piece that her having the BRCA1 gene mutation gave her an estimated 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and 50 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer. After Jolie’s mother died of breast cancer in 2013 she was tested for the BRCA1 gene mutation only to find out she was a carrier. Jolie then opted to have a double mastectomy as a preventative method.

Some key statistics about breast cancer:

  • 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in lifetime
  • Breast cancer is most common cancer among women
  • It is estimated that about 40,000 women will die of breast cancer each year
  • If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, the risk of developing cancer in the other breast is about 10 percent or less
  • In 2015, it is estimated that there will be 231,840 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the United States
  • For women in the United States, breast cancer death rates are the highest among any other type of cancer except lung cancer

Now, doctors are concerned because many women are getting or requesting double mastectomies when they have only been diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast. Is it safe for women to remove both breasts when cancer is only present in one breast? There is no simple answer to this question as each woman’s case varies. For some women, it may be life-saving and for others, it may be unnecessary. The trend in celebrities having double mastectomies as a preventative method has certainly spiked an interest in this. What we do know is that there is no scientific research to back it up. A Stanford University study involving 190,000 women showed that there was no survival benefit of taking the contralateral, or opposite, breast. The risk of getting cancer in the other breast is about 10 percent or less.

It is important for women to have a discussion with their doctors to find out what is their exact risk for breast cancer because each case is different. Women should be discussing things like their family history and whether they may have the genetic mutation to assess whether having a double mastectomy is the best choice for them.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

  • Age. Risk goes up with age. About 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women aged 55 or older while 1 out of 8 are found in women younger than 45.
  • Gender. Being a woman is the main risk factor. Men can get it too, but it is about 100 times more common in women.
  • Family history. Risk is doubled if you have a first-degree relative (sister, mother, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Genetics. About 5-to-10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child.
  • Personal history. If you have previously had breast cancer, you are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop cancer in the other breast or a different part of the same breast. This risk is different from the risk of recurrence. 
  • Race/Ethnicity. White women have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to African American, Hispanic, and Asian women. However, African American women are more likely to develop more aggressive, more advanced-stage breast cancer that is diagnosed at a young age and are more likely to die from the disease.

These are just some of the risk factors for breast cancer. For more information, see Breast Cancer Risk Factors.