The surgical procedure, known as a preventative mastectomy, came to the foreground on Tuesday when actress and bombshell Angelina Jolie announced that she recently had both of her breasts taken off — called a double mastectomy — after learning that she is genetically prone to breast cancer.
Along with Jolie, more and more woman are choosing to remove their breasts before showing signs of cancer in order reduce their chances of developing the disease later on in life. And make no mistake, for those with the same gene mutation as Jolie, who are subsequently told they have very high risk of cancer, getting preventative surgery could lower their chance of getting breast cancer by up to 90 per cent.
But the surgery is not without risks.
Jolie detailed the painful series of operations involved in a mastectomy in her candid announcement. Because the actress only recently finished three months of procedures, she was not yet able to discuss how her life has changed in the year after surgery.
There are many other women, however, that we can turn to for perspective.
In 2005, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported on 269 women, with an average age of 45, who had a preventative double mastectomy.
The researchers found that almost two-thirds of patients experienced one or more complications within one year after the surgery. The most common side-effect was pain, such as tenderness in the breast, followed by infection and seroma, or the leaking of clear bodily fluids that sometimes occurs in the body where tissue has been removed during surgery.
Patients who also underwent some kind of reconstructive surgery, like implants, were more prone to complications than those who opted out.
There are emotional impacts too. Woman may experience depression, anxiety, and struggle with body image issues following surgery.
A report published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that the procedure had a detrimental effect on how women felt about themselves sexually, even when they underwent reconstructive surgery. Nearly half of the 90 women involved in the study said they now had problems in intimate situations, partly related to feeling less sexually attractive and more self-conscious post-surgery.
Although patients’ anxiety actually decreased in this study, the nagging fear of developing breast cancer never fully dissipates.
A preventative double mastectomy significantly reduces the risk of breast cancer, but it does not eliminate it. The same genes that increase risk for breast cancer also increase risk for a range of other cancers, including ovarian cancer. There’s no data showing that having a mastectomy lowers the odds for other cancers.
Still, for many women with a known gene mutation, simply lowering the odds is reason enough.
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