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Why More Women Are Having Mastectomies

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Ever since Angelina Jolie famously had a preventative double mastectomy after being diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene (which massively ups your risk of getting breast cancer), the scary procedure has come out of the shadows and into mainstream conversation.

According to new research, it's actually happening more often too. The rate of mastectomies being performed on one or more breasts not yet affected by cancer has tripled in the past decade. Woah.

Contralateral prophylactic mastectomy (CPM) refers to the removal of one or both breasts that are not actually affected by breast cancer, which is becoming increasingly common as a preventative measure or in cases where one breast is infected with cancerous cells but the other is not. And according to the study from Brigham and Women's Hospital, there was a sharp rise in these procedures between 2002 and 2012. An increasing number of women are electing to have both breasts removed—when traditionally, a lumpectomy (where only the affected area of the breast is removed) or single mastectomy would have been performed instead—for fear that the cancer will spread.

But there's actually no evidence that the drastic move increases survival outcomes. The chance of breast cancer developing in the unaffected breast is insanely low (about .5 percent), and even though having the unaffected breast removed will take that risk down to virtually zero, this more extensive procedure is unnecessary, says Mehra Golshan, M.D., the lead author of the study.

So why the rise when there's such scant evidence that it will actually be better for your health? Aside from the Angelina Jolie effect, Golshan credits the increases in technology for breast reconstruction and MRIs, as well as increased fear thanks to the rising popularity of genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. (See: Why I Did Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer.)

It's important to note that in cases where the patient is at high-risk for developing breast cancer thanks to a gene mutation like Jolie's, CPM may have a tangible survival benefit. But the fear that cancer will spread from one breast to another is pretty unfounded according to the researchers.

Instead of jumping the gun, women should consider their options (a mastectomy is just one), says Golshan. And when it comes to impacting survival rates, early detection is key. Make sure you're following the latest breast cancer screening guidelines.

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