More women getting both breasts removed when cancer strikes one

WASHINGTON - More women who have cancer in only one breast are getting both breasts removed, says research that found the trend more than doubled in just six years.

It's still a rare option: Most breast cancer in this country is treated by lumpectomy, removing just the tumor while saving the breast.

But the new study suggests 4.5 percent of breast cancer surgery in 2003 involved women getting cancerous and healthy breasts simultaneously removed, a 150 percent increase from 1998 - with no sign that the trend was slowing.

Young women are most likely to choose the aggressive operation, researchers report Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The concern is whether they're choosing in the heat of the moment - breast cancer surgery often is within two weeks of diagnosis - or with good understanding of its pros and cons.

'Are these realistic decisions or not?' asks Dr. Todd Tuttle, cancer surgery chief at the University of Minnesota, who led the study after more women sought the option in his own hospital.

'I'm afraid that women believe having their opposite breast removed is somehow going to improve their breast cancer survival. In fact, it probably will not affect their survival,' he said.

The initial tumor already may have sent out seeds of spread to key organs, Tuttle explained.

But removing the remaining healthy breast does greatly lower, although not eliminate, chances of a new cancer developing on the opposite side.

Don't underestimate the peace of mind that brings, said Trisha Stotler Meyer of Vienna, Va., who had her breasts removed three weeks ago.

'Doctors are not up at night crying' in fear of their next mammogram, said Meyer, 37, who went back for a double mastectomy after her initial cancer surgery. 'I don't want to have to deal with the stress.'

Meyer is far from alone.

In a single day last week, Dr. Shawna Willey of Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center had two patients seek the operation.

One needed her entire cancerous breast removed, and immediately asked to have the healthy one removed, too. Another woman had recently undergone a lumpectomy and was sick from chemotherapy - and returned to ask that both breasts be fully removed.

'Her perception is, 'If I have my breasts taken off, I never have to do this again,' said Willey, who asked the woman to see a counselor and finish chemo before deciding.