Double Mastectomies Are Life-Saving, Mammograms Aren't

Illustration for article titled Double Mastectomies Are Life-Saving, Mammograms Arent

There's a lot of boob news today: two different studies have been published in regard to breast cancer that could directly impact its diagnosis and treatment. In one, researchers found that women with the BRCA mutation have a much higher chance of survival with a double mastectomy. In another, it was found that death rates were the same in women who got mammograms as those who did not.

The mammogram study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), also found that one in five cancers found with a mammogram and treated was not life-threatening enough to need chemo, surgery or radiation.

According to The New York Times, the study was "[o]ne of the largest and most meticulous studies of mammography ever done, involving 90,000 women and lasting a quarter-century." Ultimately, what researchers discovered is that there is no advantage to finding breast cancers when they were too small to feel.


Another study, also published in the BMJ, focused on double mastectomies and women the the BRCA gene mutation (which actress Angelina Jolie revealed she had last year). Researchers found that an "additional 20 lives could be saved per 100 women if they opted to have both breasts removed rather than just one."

The study included 390 women from 290 different families with early-stage breast cancer, diagnosed between 1975 and 2009. The women were either known carriers of faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes or were likely to be carriers – 44 of them had a double mastectomy while 346 had a single mastectomy.

Of those who had a single mastectomy, 137 went on to have the other breast removed at a later date. Over a 20-year follow-up period 79 women died of breast cancer. This included 18 of those who had a double mastectomy and 61 who had a single breast removed.

The results of the study showed that having both breasts removed was linked with a 48% reduction in the risk of dying from the disease.

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To state the obvious here: these are two theoretically different studies with different implications. Let's not lump them into one headline.

Double Mastectomies save women who are BRCA-positive a lot of heartache. That's great. However, they aren't recommended for those women who haven't had breast cancer or don't have the gene. So, let's not lump them in.

The mammogram finding is kind of crazy. I have always believed that self-exams were a very, very important thing. But then the CDC said no to that. I continued doing it every month anyhow. In Britain, it is still considered the recommended protocol. Interesting finding.