Last week I was featured in an article by Liz Szabo in USA Today. You can find the story here. It was so much fun to see how many people saw the piece and for the kids to see themselves in a national newspaper.
The decision to have a mastectomy is not an easy one. Many men and women with breast cancer are thankful that their cancer is in a location where the tumor and surrounding tissue can be removed. When faced with cancer the reflexive reaction may be “just get the cancer out.” Statistics on recurrence and mortality rates with certain treatment options are handed over; a new language is learned, risks are assessed. How much risk is acceptable?
Dr. Susan Love, noted breast surgeon, argued in a blogpost recently that decisions by breast cancer patients to have mastectomies constitute “wishful thinking” on their part.
I agree with a few of the points Dr. Love makes, first and foremost that a mastectomy is not equivalent with a “cure” and that it does not ensure cancer will not recur. The problem is that her post really makes it sound like she is arguing with the decision.
In my case, I needed to have one breast removed; I opted to have the other removed as well.
Let me be clear: I had no delusions that a contralateral mastectomy was going to save my life or even prevent me from having a recurrence.1 I knew I could not control if my cancer would return. What I knew is that I could control how I treated my cancer, how I managed it, how I lived with it/after it. I knew there would be choices to be made. I knew cancer would not be a “once and done” thing for me. Survivorship means living with the ramifications of the disease, long after hair has grown back in.
I also very much agree with Dr. Love’s critique of food and eating particular items to prevent breast cancer or keep it from recurring. Dr. Love writes:
Finally, there is the wishful thinking about diet! The headlines scream that if you eat blueberries or drink red wine or don’t drink red wine you will not get breast cancer. We all want to believe this magic!
In reality, these findings come from observational studies, which show you a correlation, but cannot prove cause and effect. If you knew that all drug addicts drank milk as babies, would you really think that drinking milk as a baby could make you a drug addict? Of course not! That’s a correlation. It’s not cause and effect. Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight have been shown to reduce risk, but what you eat seems less critical.
I agree that it may be tempting to cling to food as protective and/or curative. After all, when cancer takes so much from us, there is a desire to control the factors that we can — including what we eat and drink. I can’t tell you the number of women I know whom, at the time of diagnosis or the completion of treatment, decide they will eat “clean” or “healthy” and are right back in their old ways within months. During the acute phases of surgeries, chemotherapy, and/or radiation there can be a desire to take fear and channel it. By controlling what we ingest, we must be controlling what our body does and what happens to cells, right? Dr. Love reports that this is not as strong a case as one might think.
In my own opinion, if what we ate and drank were that instrumental in determining who got cancer and who had a recurrence, we’d have a cure by now. This is not to say that we aren’t learning more about risk factors and how certain foods can affect likelihoods of getting certain cancers. But for now, we do not have the scientific evidence to support such cut and dry statments about causality with breast cancer.
She shows little insight in her post into the mental reasoning that women make when deciding their treatment options. In fact, I don’t care at all for the way she chides the reader that a diagnosis of breast cancer “is not an emergency” and we should not make a deal with the gods to exchange our breasts for a clean bill of health.
In essence, she suffers from what she has just taken us to task for… equating correlation with causation. After all, just because women want to get rid of their cancer and they opt for a mastectomy, this does not mean they are making the decisions with that tradeoff as their guide. In fact, more often than not, it’s not even necessarily a reduction in breast cancer recurrence that women are after. There are other things they do not want to go through: mammograms, MRIs, biopsies, waiting for test results… and in my case, radiation on my left side which could cause heart damage.
I quote Dr. Love at length here:
We use wishful thinking all the time when making treatment decisions. When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer her first reaction—understandably since she is scared to death!—is to do anything she can to insure that she is cured and make the fear go away. This fear (accompanied by wishful thinking) often leads people to do things that are not supported by the science.
One example of this is the studies that show that the number of mastectomies for breast cancer has been increasing in the U.S. each year. This is not happening because doctors are finding bigger tumors, or because mastectomy is a better treatment. It is the result of wishful thinking: If I offer my breast or breasts to the gods, I will surely get my life back in exchange! If I have no breast tissue, I never have to go through this again !
In reality, a mastectomy never removes all of the breast tissue. (I am a breast surgeon, so I should know.) The breast tissue does not come neatly packaged so that it be easily removed, which is why there always is some breast tissue left behind in the skin, around the muscle, and at the edges. In reality, the local recurrence rate after mastectomy is 5 to 10% and the local recurrence rate after lumpectomy and radiation is 5 to10%! It is exactly the same! And the cure rates are the same as well.
The critical issue is getting the tumor out with a rim of normal tissue and dealing with any cells that might have escaped—which is what radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy are for. It seems like the more radical the surgery the better the results should be . . . but that is really just wishful thinking!
The rollercoaster ride of cancer is not to be underestimated. Once a patient has a history of cancer, there will be frequent monitoring which brings not only potential additional radiation, but also the knowledge that if there is a question, more testing, including biopsies, will be needed. This emotional up and down means a woman must prepare herself each time that her cancer may have returned.
The main problem with Dr. Love’s piece is that she chides patients for making hasty decisions about their heath care. She reminds us that she’s a breast surgeon for thirty years, after all. And yet, with that experience and scientific background, she should know better than to lump women into one decision-making category and not divide them out based on demographic differences. Oncologists (surgical and medical) both make recommendations to patients based on many variables. Issues such as age, whether this is a first diagnosis of cancer, whether other cancers are in the patient’s medical history, grade of the cancer (how aggressive), what type (including hormone receptor status), and family history all come into play in medical decision-making.
Additionally, women may opt to have a mastectomy or double mastectomy for aesthetic reasons. Some of my initial decision to have a mastectomy on my right side was because I wanted my reconstruction to be symmetrical. After three children my breasts were looking their age. If I had a mastectomy on one side I would have needed surgery to reshape my breast to better “match” the breast that would be made with reconstructive surgery.
When confronted with breast cancer, patients get divided into two camps: there are those who want to do the most possible to treat it and there are those who want to do the least they can while still “taking care of it.” Factors of age, grade and stage of cancer, issues of radiation, reconstruction, BRCA-1 and 2 status and personality type all come into play. I personally believe that the ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty is a key part of the decision-making process.
I don’t say I’m cancer-free: I never say that.
I never say a double mastectomy means I won’t get cancer again.
I know what I had.
I know what I did.
It’s about well-informed choices.
I know what might happen…
In the end, it’s not just about the statistics: it’s about the person.
- a contralateral mastectomy is the removal of the “healthy” breast. In my case actually ended up showing atypical cells that put my odds of getting cancer in that side well above normal [↩]