Following the completion of several large studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s involving thousands of women, it was clearly determined that the number of years a woman lived following breast cancer surgery was exactly the same whether she underwent mastectomy (removing the whole breast) or lumpectomy (just removing the part of the breast with the cancer). This was a big breakthrough for breast cancer treatment with the realization that more surgery doesn’t result in better outcomes. Initially this resulted in a trend of women choosing lumpectomy over mastectomy in order to preserve their breasts.
However in recent years, as Dr. Kummerow and many other researchers have found, there is a nationwide trend in choosing mastectomy over lumpectomy despite there being no clear survival advantage. In addition, many women choose to undergo mastectomy of the non -affected breast despite the fact that the risk of developing cancer in this breast is very low and that it does not have any effect on survival from their current breast cancer.
As a breast cancer surgeon, I see this same phenomenon in my own practice. The choice of mastectomy on one or both sides is often driven by multiple factors including the fear of cancer coming back or a new cancer on the other side and the wish to do everything one can to prevent this. This often provides some sense of control and peace of mind in the setting of an overwhelming diagnosis.
When a woman is diagnosed with early breast cancer and given the choice of mastectomy or lumpectomy because she is a candidate for either procedure, the options should be considered carefully.
It should be clearly recognized that mastectomy does not provide 100 percent protection from cancers coming back. Cancers often come back at other sites outside of the breast before they return in the area of the removed breast tissue. Because mammograms or other imaging studies are not routinely used after mastectomy, the finding of recurrences along the chest depends on continued routine self -exam and clinical exam by their doctor when the tumor is large enough to feel as opposed to being detected on mammogram when it is very small.
Mastectomy is also associated with increased complications compared to lumpectomy and these are often related to the reconstruction, which can be discouraging. It is even more devastating when there are complications related to the unaffected breast when women choose mastectomies on both sides.
Lymph node surgery often is performed in the setting of mastectomy. If just a single lymph node is found to be involved with breast cancer, removal of additional lymph nodes is recommended which can result in added complications. However if a lumpectomy is chosen, generally 3 or more lymph nodes need to be involved with cancer before more lymph nodes are removed.
When a woman presents with newly diagnosed early breast cancer and is put in the position of making a decision between lumpectomy and mastectomy, a thoughtful discussion should be initiated with her treating physicians. Ultimately, the decision is very personal and she should choose the procedure that suits her lifestyle and provides her with the greatest sense of wellbeing.