In this article for The New York Times, Peggy Orenstein addresses one of the many tricky topics surrounding breast cancer: to remove or not remove the “unaffected” breast?
It’s a tricky topic because the research and prevailing medical consensus are in direct opposition to gut instinct. Research says a bilateral mastectomy in patients with cancer in just one breast has little impact on survivability. Doctors say the odds of surviving low-grade noninvasive breast cancer is the same whether we undergo a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. But our guts often say “lop em both off.”
That’s what my gut told me to do, even after extensive research and number-crunching. My gut instinct leaped immediately to a slash-and-burn tactic. My darling breast surgeon required me to wait at least 3 days before making my decision on the lumpectomy vs mastectomy debate; I complied but my decision was made in the first 10 minutes of grasping my diagnosis. My gut told me to opt for the bilateral mastectomy.
I suppose this puts me in the category of women opting for a CPM, or contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. The experts whom Orenstein spoke to about the CPM debate refer to the increase in women undergoing CPM as “epidemic” and “alarming” and believe it is driven by women not fully understanding the math. Girls have always been bad at math, right? That’s the message I got, growing up in the 1970s in suburban America.
A 2013 study done by Boston’s famed Dana-Farber clinic revealed that women younger than 40 with no increased genetic risk who had cancer in one breast believed that “within five years, 10 out of 100 of them would develop it in the other; the actual risk is about 2 to 4 percent.”
Upon my diagnosis, I understood the math. It wasn’t easy and it was confusing. It took time and effort, but it was not beyond me (having a math guru in the house helped tremendously, but the point still stands). I understood that my chances of successfully removing the cancer in my “affected” breast was the same whether it was done via lumpectomy or mastectomy. I understood that my chances of developing the same cancer in the other breast were slim to none, because, as Orenstein says,”cancer doesn’t just leap from breast to breast.” I understood that low-grade noninvasive lazy cancers don’t typically become deadly; it takes a cancer that metastasizes to do that.
I also understood that a bilateral mastectomy is not an easy surgery. Not by a long shot. As Orenstein so colorfully describes it, “breasts don’t just screw off, like jar lids.” Undergoing a mastectomy involves not only losing the breast itself but also (typically) the nipple and areola, as well as the lining of the chest muscles. Factor in the JP drains that are snaked into the traumatized chest, just to add insult to injury. I couldn’t lift my arms for days after my mastectomy and needed help with the simplest things, such as brushing my teeth and applying chapstick. I needed a new, temporary wardrobe of tops that buttoned or zipped up, because lifting my arms over my head to put on or take off a shirt was a no-go for my battered upper body. I needed help — lots of help — which doesn’t jive with my stubborn and independent countenance.
I knew that choosing the harder road of a bilateral mastectomy over the easier, less-invasive lumpectomy did not increase my odds of surviving breast cancer. At least according to the studies. I knew that a mastectomy is much riskier than a lumpectomy. I knew that recovery would be much harder and more time-consuming. Nonetheless, my gut told me to take that more difficult road. My gut was right.
Orenstein spoke to Steven J. Katz, a University of Michigan professor of medicine and health management. He studies medical decision-making, and has found that people tend to react from the gut when confronted with a diagnosis because we are wired to make “fast-flow decisions” that make us want to flee. Understandable to anyone who has been on the other side of the doctor delivering bad news. Upon diagnosis, Orenstein recalls feeling “as if a humongous cockroach had been dropped onto my chest. I could barely contain the urge to bat frantically at my breast screaming, ‘Get it off! Get it off!'” Her version involved a giant cockroach; my version involved a scorched earth.
Dr. Katz says that doctors need to understand how our gut reaction affects our post-diagnosis decision. He speaks of “the power of anticipated regret: how people imagine they’d feel if their illness returned and they had not done ‘everything’ to fight it when they’d had the chance. Patients will go to extremes to restore peace of mind, even undergoing surgery that, paradoxically, won’t change the medical basis for their fear.”
It is a paradox: our intellectual self versus our gut.
Orenstein points out that “it seems almost primal to offer up a healthy breast to fate, as a symbol of our willingness to give all we have to and for our families. It’s hard to imagine, by contrast, that someone with a basal cell carcinoma on one ear would needlessly remove the other one ‘just in case’ or for the sake of symmetry.”
While it may be hard to imagine, there’s no way to predict how one will react to a cancer diagnosis. All the studies and statistics are worthless in the face of the worst-possible scenario, which is facing cancer. I was 40 years old, with 2 kids under the age of 10, when I faced that scenario. Of course I thought of them and the possibility of leaving them motherless and rudderless. Having lost my own sweet mama brought that into even clearer focus. Perhaps my decision to undergo a CPM was based more on emotion than on rational thought. No doubt my gut was driving that bus.
But guess what? My gut is a careful and prescient driver. In steering me toward the more-radical surgery option, my gut saved me. Maybe saved my life, but definitely saved me from undergoing a second mastectomy, one that would most definitely not have been of the CPM variety.
My “unaffected” breast had cancer, too. And Paget disease to boot. Nothing had showed up on any of the myriad tests or scans I’d had before my mastectomy. It was the surgical pathology on the “unaffected” breast that finally revealed those cancers. How long would those cancers have grown, unannounced and unaccounted for, had I not followed my instinct and listened to my gut? I don’t like to think about that.
I’ve learned — the hard way, of course — that I’m one of those medical weirdos whose body does not conform to standard protocols. I’m the kook who gets the weird stuff; to wit, Paget disease accounts for a mere 1 to 4 percent all breast cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. Ditto the post-mastectomy infection I contracted. Who gets a microbacterium fortitum?? So few people that my infectious disease team — yes, I had a team of ID docs — still wonders where the hell that originated.
We medical weirdos don’t fit into studies or facts or figures. We are the ones who keep their doctors up at night, scratching their heads and wondering what?? what?? what is going on here?? We are the ones for whom the “if it can go wrong, it will” axiom applies. We are the ones who make other people reassess the shittyness of their situation (you’re welcome, by the way).