Duke Cancer Institute Study

03/30/16 By Daryl Lee

In a recent article in the Washington Post, reporter Laurie McGinley describes some surprising results in a study about patients who had been diagnosed with cancer in a single breast, but had elected to undergo a double mastectomy

Many of these women stated they thought that taking aggressive action now, would prevent them from a recurrence of cancer in their other breast, relieve anxiety, and help generate ease and contentment about their bodies..

However, the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and conducted by researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute, concludes that overall anxiety around a recurrence of cancer continues for women, regardless of having had double mastectomy, and that their quality of life is not improved very much.

Thousands of women who had developed cancer in one breast, and who had either single or double mastectomies, were surveyed to see if the double mastectomy patients were less anxious, more confident in their appearance and sexuality.  The study found the difference for women who had a double mastectomy was only slight, and primarily for those women who had undergone reconstructive surgery.

Regardless which surgery was elected, women suffered anxiety postoperatively.  “Unless a woman has a gene mutation that places her at significantly increased risk of a new cancer in the other breast, CPM (contralateral prophylactic mastectomies; i.e. a double mastectomy) doesn’t prolong life, and our study shows that it doesn’t craft a notably better quality of life,” Shelly Hwang, the institute’s chief of breast surgery, said.  “Surgery is meant to cure biological issues, not make people feel less anxious”, she added.

It is important to note this study excluded women who had a much higher cancer risk due to the presence of genetic markers, like BRAC1 or 2.  “That’s a totally different situation,” Hwang said. 

Also, there are long term risks associated with double mastectomies; i.e. possible numbness across the chest wall, chronic pain, and repeated infections. 

In short, “Maybe we need to educate women better,” says Hwang.