When a woman finds out that she has breast cancer, her whole world stops. Suddenly, she is afraid for her own mortality, not to mention terrified of the pain and loss that accompanies surgery. For many women, the thought of a mastectomy is devastating. It is more than just a typical surgery: Our breasts are part of our self-image and our femininity, and they nurture and feed our children.
No wonder so many women are confused and frightened when it comes to choosing between a mastectomy and a double mastectomy. Sadly, this decision is something women often face because if one breast has cancer, the risk for the other breast can increase. Although there is no guarantee that this will happen, many people view the double mastectomy as a precautionary medical measure.
The decision to remove both breasts, then, is often considered a life-saving sacrifice. The fear of cancer and the desire to prevent recurrence at any cost has caused the number of double-mastectomy procedures to jump. In fact, the number of double mastectomies performed in this country has increased 150 percent since 1998. No doubt a number of these surgeries have helped save lives and decreased the number of breast-cancer recurrences, but this doesn’t mean that a double mastectomy is the best or only option for all breast-cancer patients.
The decision to undergo any surgery is always a serious one, but when it comes to a mastectomy, the decision is especially personal and close to a woman’s heart. Making the choice can often be further complicated because of conflicting advice from loved ones. Well-meaning friends and family (and even other breast-cancer survivors) might encourage a woman to simply “take them both off” even if her particular risk of developing cancer in the other breast is very low.
Of course, for some women, the risk of developing cancer in the other breast is quite high and their own family histories and other factors might make a double mastectomy the best choice. If this describes you, make sure that you are making your decision with a clear head and not out of fear or pressure from outside sources. Yes, the thought of developing breast cancer in the other breast is scary, but if your risk is low and your doctor does not think it is necessary, you can make the decision for yourself based on your comfort level. Although it’s difficult to face such an important choice, many women also find that their breast-cancer diagnosis gives them clarity, strength, and force of will they never realized they had.
By talking to your doctor, learning more about your risk level, and researching your options, you can make the decision that is right for you. Talking to your loved ones and other survivors can help clarify your choices; but remember, the decision is ultimately yours and yours alone.