This past week actress Angelina Jolie announced her decision to undertake a double mastectomy as a prevention measure for breast cancer. After being diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene, she was informed that she had a 87% chance of developing breast cancer. Even though her predicted chance of gene-related breast cancer has now dropped to 5% following the surgeries, this has fueled a large debate as to whether such drastic measures were necessary, effective or accurately a symbol of female power and courage.
Although no one is arguing that genes don’t play an important role in breast cancer development, there are many who stand by the belief that dietary and lifestyle choices are far more effective at preventing cancer (regardless of genetic pre-disposition) than preventive surgeries or even early detection methods such as mammograms. Breast cancer is only one form of cancer, the prevention of which does not insure a cancer-free life once the breasts are removed. Mammograms as well are proving to be an ineffective means of actively preventing breast cancer and may even cause more harm than good in the long-run. Each woman’s choice is her own and should not be judged in retrospect. However, I believe it’s important to understand the risks of these preventative measures as well as healthy living choices you can make today to lower your chances of developing any type of cancer, regardless of genes.
For those who don’t know, the test to determine whether you have the BRCA1 gene is extremely expensive ($3,000-$4,000) due to the gene patent held by Myriad Genetics. Depending on the upcoming Supreme Court ruling as to whether patents on genes are constitutional, the cost of this test alone prevents it from being a viable preventative measure for many. Even if you are able to afford the test and determine that you do have the gene, it certainly does not mean that you will indeed develop breast cancer. Although a double mastectomy is certainly an option, it is not the only one and offers no guarantee of avoiding cancer development, in the breasts or elsewhere.
Mammograms, a much more affordable prevention method, are a procedure doctors recommend women do once a year beginning at age 40. However, many are now questioning the safety of the radiation incurred with these x-rays, which may increase cellular mutations that lead to cancer. Dr. Samuel Epstein, Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, informs us that cancer risk increases by 1% with each exposure, which over a 10 year period of annual mammograms can add up to a 10% increased risk of developing cancer from the x-rays alone. The other issue with mammograms is that they tend to produce an alarming number of false positives, which may lead women to unnecessarily undergo treatment methods such as chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and hormonal therapy.
In November 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study indicating that 1.3 million breast cancer cases had been falsely diagnosed due to mammography over the past 30 years. The researchers concluded that screening mammography has only reduced the rate at which women progress to advanced cancer by 6.5%. This means that for 93%, early detection had no benefit to the patient. It’s also important to note that even in many of the accurately detected early signs of breast cancer, many of these cancers would otherwise regress through the body’s own defenses, left untreated.
It’s important to point out that providing this information is not meant to lesson the value of a doctor’s recommendation or your own instincts as to whether you should undergo any of these preventative and treatment measures. However, it does offer an opportunity to re-evaluate what is considered the “norm” in breast cancer screening and prevention and alternatively look at other ways of preventing cancer that don’t carry any associated risks physically or psychologically.
One alternative screening method you may also want to investigate is called thermography, a way of measuring radiation of infrared heat from the body in order to detect abnormalities and inflammation that could lead to cancer. It’s a non-evasive way to monitor your breast health and can even indicate the presence of potential cancer up to 10 years before it would show up on a mammogram. This allows you to address the inflammation before it has a chance to develop into cancer through diet and lifestyle changes.
 Jolie, A. (2013, May 14). My medical choice. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/opinion/my-medical-choice.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1368906805-Vdai7LJQ+yth4pudZkWrww
 Nichols, C. (2013, May 14). Myriad genetics shares climb after angelina jolie has mastectomy. Retrieved from http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/myriad-genetics-shares-climb-angelina-jolie-reveals-mastectomy-150535625.html
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.preventcancer.com/patients/mammography/ijhs_mammography.htm
 Bleyer, A., & Welch. G. (2012). Effect of three decades of screening mammography on breast-cancer incidence. The New England Journal of Medicine, 367(1998-2005), doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1206809
 Mercola, J. (2012, July 8). Gaea powell on safer breast cancer screening. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/07/08/gaea-powell-on-thermography.aspx
Published On: May 18, 2013