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April 26, 2013 10:50 AM Are We Fighting the War on Breast Cancer Too Hard?

By Aaron Carroll

Go over to the NYT, right now, and read this. Peggy Orenstein has written what may be the best piece on our “war” on breast cancer to date. I could quote the whole thing. But here’s something that truly resonated:

My first instinct this round was to have my other breast removed as well — I never wanted to go through this again. My oncologist argued against it. The tamoxifen would lower my risk of future disease to that of an average woman, he said. Would an average woman cut off her breasts? I could have preventive surgery if I wanted to, he added, but it would be a psychological decision, not a medical one.

I weighed the options as my hospital date approached. Average risk, after all, is not zero. Could I live with that? Part of me still wanted to extinguish all threat. I have a 9-year-old daughter; I would do anything — I need to do everything — to keep from dying. Yet, if death was the issue, the greatest danger wasn’t my other breast. It is that, despite treatment and a good prognosis, the cancer I’ve already had has metastasized. Preventive mastectomy wouldn’t change that; nor would it entirely eliminate the possibility of new disease, because there’s always some tissue left behind.

What did doing “everything” mean, anyway? There are days when I skip sunscreen. I don’t exercise as much as I should. I haven’t given up aged Gouda despite my latest cholesterol count; I don’t get enough calcium. And, oh, yeah, my house is six blocks from a fault line. Is living with a certain amount of breast-cancer risk really so different? I decided to take my doctor’s advice, to do only what had to be done.

I’ve discussed risk so many times here. I’ve encouraged us to have a better discussion of harms versus benefits. I’m not sure anyone could do it better than she did there.

Here’s another bit that focuses on the counterfactual:

It wasn’t so long ago that women fought to keep their breasts after a cancer diagnosis, lobbying surgeons to forgo radical mastectomies for equally effective lumpectomies with radiation. Why had that flipped? I pondered the question as I browsed through the “Stories of Hope” on the American Cancer Society’s Web site. I came across an appealing woman in a pink T-shirt, smiling as she held out a white-frosted cupcake bedecked with a pink candle. In a first-person narrative, she said that she began screening in her mid-30s because she had fibrocystic breast disease. At 41, she was given a diagnosis of D.C.I.S., which was treated with lumpectomy and radiation. “I felt lucky to have caught it early,” she said, though she added that she was emotionally devastated by the experience. She continued screenings and went on to have multiple operations to remove benign cysts. By the time she learned she had breast cancer again, she was looking at a fifth operation on her breasts. So she opted to have both of them removed, a decision she said she believed to be both logical and proactive.
I found myself thinking of an alternative way to describe what happened. Fibrocystic breast disease does not predict cancer, though distinguishing between benign and malignant tumors can be difficult, increasing the potential for unnecessary biopsies. Starting screening in her 30s exposed this woman to years of excess medical radiation — one of the few known causes of breast cancer. Her D.C.I.S., a condition detected almost exclusively through mammography, quite likely never would become life-threatening, yet it transformed her into a cancer survivor, subjecting her to surgery and weeks of even more radiation. By the time of her second diagnosis, she was so distraught that she amputated both of her breasts to restore a sense of control.
Should this woman be hailed as a survivor or held up as a cautionary tale? Was she empowered by awareness or victimized by it? The fear of cancer is legitimate: how we manage that fear, I realized — our responses to it, our emotions around it — can be manipulated, packaged, marketed and sold, sometimes by the very forces that claim to support us. That can color everything from our perceptions of screening to our understanding of personal risk to our choices in treatment. “You could attribute the rise in mastectomies to a better understanding of genetics or better reconstruction techniques,” Tuttle said, “but those are available in Europe, and you don’t see that mastectomy craze there. There is so much ‘awareness’ about breast cancer in the U.S. I’ve called it breast-cancer overawareness. It’s everywhere. There are pink garbage trucks. Women are petrified.”

Even people who had cancer detected by early screening may have been better off with a less aggressive approach. We don’t know what would have happened in an alternate timeline.

Seriously, stop reading me and go over there and read the whole thing.

[Originally posted at The Incidental Economist]

Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.
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