Most breast cancers are not caused by inherited genetic mutations. However, for the women who do inherit genes that strongly increase their breast cancer risk, it is critical that these genes be detected prior to a woman’s development of breast cancer. Angelina Jolie recently announced her decision to have a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts), based on her genetic predisposition, in order to lower her risk of developing breast cancer. This is just one option that can be discussed with a health care provider. Each woman is different, having different risk factors and needs. A decision to take large preventive measures, like surgery, should be made based on recommendations from health care providers and discussion with friends, family and health counselors.
While surgery is not completely effective in preventing breast cancer, it is thought to lower the risk of breast cancer development by about 90 percent. More importantly, surgery is proven to reduce the chance of dying of breast cancer by approximately 80 – 90 percent. The majority of women who choose prophylactic mastectomies are satisfied with their decision when questioned afterwards. In an era when so many women are feeling that they are helpless to protect themselves from the all-too-high risk of breast cancer, Ms. Jolie has a lot of courage to take this step to effectively lower her breast cancer risk. It is my hope that her example will inspire other women to take appropriate preventive measures (e.g., drugs, surgery, mammograms, etc.) to lower their risk of dying of breast cancer and be more proactive in their own health care. While not everyone needs to have surgery, preventive care will lead to more knowledge of your own personal risk for breast cancer and in some situations lead to early detection.