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Are celebrities with breast cancer influencing our treatment decisions?

Almost everyone affected by breast cancer knows that Angelina Jolie was genetically tested for the disease and decided to have a preventative double mastectomy. Many will also remember that when Christina Applegate was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years back she too underwent a double mastectomy.

A recent study has found that media coverage of these women and other celebrities’ public journeys with breast cancer have impacted American women’s decisions on their own treatment.

For example, between 2000 and 2012 the number of women with breast cancer who underwent double mastectomy at the University of Michigan rose nearly five-fold.

While the researchers say it’s great that celebrities are raising awareness of treatment options, it’s concerning that more women are choosing to undergo double mastectomies without consulting their doctors first, and based on inaccurate information about the risks and benefits.

There is a growing misconception that removing both breasts will increase survival from breast cancer, but that’s not always the case – it may provide some peace of mind, but overall better survival has not yet been proven.

People with breast cancer die because the disease has spread to another part of the body, not from local spread within the breast, so there’s no real benefit to removing the entirety of a cancerous breast, and its non-cancerous pair, unless the patient is considered high-risk.

High-risk women, such as Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate, who have a family history of breast cancer and/or have tested positive for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation, may benefit from a preventative double mastectomy (before tumours develop).

NBCF ambassador Andrea Michelle also had a preventative double mastectomy due to her high risk (86%) of developing breast cancer, because she was worried about leaving her children without a mother.

It’s an understandable reaction for women with a family background or genetic predisposition for breast cancer. However, misinformation among women with tumours in one breast leads them to overestimate the chance of developing cancer in their other breast, and removing both more than doubles the risk of complications during surgery and recovery.

This major operation is just the first step in the treatment, as chemotherapy and radiotherapy are still required and could be delayed if complications arise.

In Australia, breast surgery is only possible with a referral from a doctor.

Ultimately the decision on treatment is up to the patient and discussing options with the treating doctor is important for accurate information and understanding if a double mastectomy is the right treatment for them. For some, it will be the best decision for their individual circumstances. But it’s not a blanket approach and for many women there are less drastic treatment options available.