The Wrong Approach to Breast Cancer

“The Wrong Approach to Breast Cancer.” By Peggy Orenstein, The New York Times.

I had a tiny, low-grade tumor in 1997; 15 years later, in the summer of 2012, while I was simultaneously watching “Breaking Bad,” chatting with my husband and changing into my pajamas, my finger grazed a hard knot beneath my lumpectomy scar. Just as before, time seemed to stop.

The recurrence appears to have been confined to my breast and was, like the original tumor, a slow-moving form of the disease. Since the lumpectomy and radiation I had in 1997 failed, however, this time the whole breast had to go. My first question to my oncologist (after “Am I going to die?” Answer: yes, someday, but probably not of this) was whether I should have the other breast removed, just to be safe.

It turns out, I’m not alone in that concern. After a decades-long trend toward less invasive surgery, patients’ interest in removing the unaffected breast through a procedure called contralateral prophylactic mastectomy (or C.P.M., as it’s known in the trade) is skyrocketing, and not just among women like me who have been through treatment before.

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2009, among those with ductal carcinoma in situ — a non-life-threatening, “stage 0” cancer — the rates of mastectomy with C.P.M. jumped 188 percent between 1998 and 2005. Among those with early-stage invasive disease, the rates went up 150 percent between 1998 and 2003. Most of these women did not carry a genetic mutation that predisposes them to the disease. Researchers have called the spike an “epidemic” and “alarming,” driven by patients’ overestimation of their actual chances of contracting a second cancer.

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