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Fear Drives Some Double Mastectomies, Study Finds

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- More women diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast are opting to remove the other breast as well, and a new, small study suggests that the decision may be driven by fear rather than the actual risk of dying.

Researchers from the Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute surveyed 123 women aged 40 or younger, all of whom had cancer in one breast and chose to undergo a double mastectomy.  A whopping 98 percent of them said their choice to remove the healthy breast was driven by the desire to avoid a cancer recurrence.

But was it medically necessary?  For women with early-stage breast cancer and no BRCA gene mutations, the odds of developing the disease in the opposite breast are less than one in 100.  And while no study has proven that removing a healthy breast extends life, 94 percent of the women surveyed cited “increased survival” as a main reason for their double mastectomy.

Study author Shoshana Rosenberg, a breast cancer epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the findings suggest that women are making “an emotional decision” when they really need information.

“The results show that anxiety, fears, and concerns about recurrence are not being adequately addressed in the decision-making process,” she said.  “We need a combination of more effective risk communication and also need to address concerns and anxiety early.”

But breast cancer experts not involved with the study are split over the findings.

Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and a two-time breast cancer survivor, said having a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with cancer in a single breast can offer peace of mind.

“I have patients say, ‘Can you guarantee my breast cancer won’t come back?’” Shockney said.  “Since there are no absolutes, we have to say, ‘No I can’t.’  Patients want to reduce their chances to the lowest probability.”

On the other side of the debate is breast cancer surgeon Dr. Susan Love, who said she feels that many women opt for mastectomies with a false impression of what reconstructive surgery can offer.

“There is a fantasy that you’ll have the perfect breasts you always wished you had, and you may or may not be happy with that,” said Love, noting also that many women don’t realize that reconstructive surgery usually leaves the breast completely numb. “For those of us who started out our careers creating randomized controlled trials to show that lumpectomy and radiation were just as good as mastectomy, it’s distressing when people are doing bilateral mastectomies.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio