Harvard Women's Health Watch

Preventive mastectomy

Worry is driving some women to unnecessarily have both breasts removed.

Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can't bear the thought of doing it again. That's why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking drastic measures to avoid getting cancer in the other, by having both breasts surgically removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy).

Yet a study presented in November 2012 at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Quality Care Symposium found that most women who are having this procedure—70%—are actually at very low risk of getting cancer in the second breast. In other words, many women are exposing themselves unnecessarily to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. These women are making what they feel is the best decision to protect their health, yet they may not fully understand their risks.

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