SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — More women than ever are opting to remove their breasts to prevent breast cancer despite doctors saying they don’t need to.
The American Medical Association says two to five percent of all breast cancer occurs in both breasts, and now researchers are arguing against the double procedure, they say, doesn’t offer better survival rates.
It was a life-changing decision that Debi Gaul never imagined she’d have to make. She turned to support groups, doctors, friends and family to help her face a frightening new chapter in her life.
“I don’t feel like I’m the same person,” she said. “My kids, coming to me saying you’re going to have this surgery because we want you to live.”
Genetic testing revealed she had a BRCA mutation, a high-risk gene for breast and ovarian cancer doctors say only about five percent of women carry.
“I have the naysayers saying, why are you going to do this when you haven’t even been diagnosed?” she said.
Weeks later, the massage therapist from Sacramento had both her breasts and ovaries removed. The aggressive surgery is becoming more and more popular, despite possible consequences of infection and bleeding.
Debi’s friend Sonia Susac was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in one breast. She had both removed.
“Once you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re facing your mortality before you’re ready to face it,” she said. “I wanted to do everything I could to get it out of my body.”
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the rate of women having preventative double mastectomies tripled in the last decade, despite the radical surgery not being associated with higher survival rates.
Researchers found the number of women who had a double mastectomy increased from 3.9 percent in 2002 to 12.7 percent in 2012. The rate of single-breast mastectomy dropped from 35.8 percent to 28.9 percent.
Doctors aren’t only puzzled, most are discouraging women from having the dual procedure. Sacramento Dr. Ernie Bodai is famous for helping create a breast cancer postage stamp that helped raise more than $80 million for research, he’s also operated on hundreds of women in his three-decade career. He says many of his patients—younger women in their 30s—who have undergone double mastectomies don’t need it.
“They have mastectomy without any proven disease,” he said. “The bottom line is the overall survival in a woman who has a double mastectomy is no different for a woman who has a single mastectomy.”
So what’s behind the surge in surgeries?
“No. 1, when they’re diagnosed originally with one breast having a disease, they’re terrified,” he said. “They don’t want cancer on the other side, even though getting cancer on the other breast is slim, about one percent per year.”
Then there’s the Angelina Effect. High-profile celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate have advocated for the double mastectomy surgery after their procedures. Like Gaul, Jolie carried the high-risk breast cancer gene.
But the American Cancer Association says testing positive for the gene is not the same as a cancer diagnosis.
But Bodai acknowledges the surgery produces relief.
“In the women who I have done the double mastectomies on, I cannot recall one out of the dozens and dozens who have regretted having the procedure,” he said.
The surgeries weren’t a breeze—Gaul had five operations in a year. But with advancements in breast reconstruction, the friends feel attractive again—free of mammograms, chemotherapy, radiation and fear.