Remember the “Angelina Jolie effect”? New research suggests that women with early-stage breast cancer in one breast are more likely to have double mastectomies, with the likelihood of getting this procedure much greater in some states than others. And while it isn’t sure why more women are having both their breasts removed even if one of them is still healthy, researchers believe it may have something to do with actress Angelina Jolie’s surprising decision to have a double mastectomy in 2013.
A study published on Wednesday in the journal JAMA Surgery suggests that women aged 20 to 44 suffering from breast cancer are more likely than ever before to go under the knife and have both breasts removed, even if their cancer is in the early stages and diagnosed in only one breast. But what stood out as one the most interesting takeaways was how women in certain states were far more likely to undergo the operation than women in others.
As Reuters pointed out, only 15 percent of women in the District of Columbia chose to get double mastectomies between 2010 and 2012, while a whopping 49 percent of South Dakota women opted for this procedure over the same timeframe. Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Tennessee were other states listed as having more than 40 percent of women aged 20 to 44 undergoing the procedure despite having cancer in only one, and not both breasts.
American Cancer Society vice president of Surveillance and Health Services Research Ahmedin Jemal was involved in the study as a senior author, and in a statement quoted by CNN, he said that it’s “very difficult” to put a finger on why there has been such a uptick in double mastectomies. Still, he had some theories as to why women are favoring these operations more than they did in the past, including the aesthetic reason of having more symmetrical-looking breasts.
“One factor that could contribute to the increase is this desire for symmetry.”
Aside from that, Jemal noted the possibility of the “Angelina Jolie effect” coming into play. He believes that women may have decided to follow the Hollywood actress’s example due to its widespread media coverage, and how her decision to get a double mastectomy helped raise breast cancer awareness.
“(Jolie) was diagnosed with the BRCA-1 cancer gene that mutation that causes breast cancer, and she had a double mastectomy, so that was covered widely in the media. For women diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, there is no evidence to suggest to remove the unaffected breast.”
In an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times in May 2013, Angelina Jolie revealed that she got a double mastectomy earlier that year after being diagnosed as having a very good (87 percent) risk of breast cancer and a fair (50 percent) risk of ovarian cancer, as she was found to have the “faulty” gene BRCA-1. She explained that her mother’s own cancer death at the young age of 56-years-old was a key factor convincing her to undergo the operation. As for her reasons for writing about her experience, Jolie said that she wanted to raise awareness of breast cancer and encourage other women to get blood tests to determine if they have the faulty cancer gene in question.
Although Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy was a preventive measure, some experts believe that it’s not always the best decision to have both breasts removed. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center oncologist Dr. Laurie Kirstein, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters that such operations don’t significantly reduce cancer risk on the healthy breast, “because (the) risk wasn’t that high to begin with.”
Even then, Jemal believes that the best thing women should do before deciding to get a double mastectomy is to consult their doctor before jumping into any decision.
“First, the surgeons have to have this discussion with the patient,” Jemal explained. “Second, patients have to take time to make a decision. They don’t want to make the decision right away, because anxiety is very high right after diagnosis.”
[Featured Image by Jordan Pix/Getty Images]