Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death among women in the U.S. and the world. This condition occurs when cancer cells multiply in the breast tissue, often going undetected for long periods of time. Breast cancer can be hereditary, meaning that if a woman has a family history of breast cancer, then she should conduct regular self exams, checking for swelling, lumps, and other unusual growths, and schedule regular mammograms.
As with all cancers, the rate of development and treatment options vary by individual. Mastectomy is a medical procedure, occasionally elective and preventative, but typically recommended and essential, where all or part of the breast is removed. Recent advances have made the procedure much more cosmetically viable, often allowing the nipple to be saved for breast reconstruction later.
Mastectomy has gained a lot of press, with actresses Christina Applegate undergoing a double mastectomy in 2008. But more recently, actress and philanthropist Angelina Jolie underwent a three-part double mastectomy, beginning in February of this year. For both women, the surgery was preventive, aiming to stamp out the presence of cancerous cells, and the potential for breast cancer later in life. Both women had a high probability of developing breast cancer, as the possessed a mutation of the BCRA 1 and 2 gene, which signal hereditary breast cancer.
BCRA refers to “breast cancer susceptibility genes,” which are a specific class of gene whose primary function is to suppress tumor cells and cancer growth. A mutation in these genes makes the individual particularly at risk for development of breast cancer. Jolie says that since the surgery, her risk for breast cancer has dropped for an extremely high eighty seven percent to an almost imperceptible, and certainly more manageable, five percent.
As with all cancers, and most things in life, the best, most consistent way to prevent breast cancer is by regular self-exams and biannual mammograms. If breast cancer is hereditary, more frequent exams should be performed and scheduled. But, for women who are at high risk for breast cancer who already takes these precautionary steps, comfort and peace of mind can be difficult things to attain. In this case, mastectomy can be undertaken.
For Mrs. Jolie and Applegate, double mastectomies reduced the ability of cancerous cells to take root in the breast tissue by removing that tissue altogether. But these women are celebrities who can afford the best care, both medical and cosmetic. For regular, working class women, mastectomies aren’t as feasible as a method of prevention. However, it’s comforting to know that there are alternative breast cancer treatments, which involve many of the same treatments and methods as are used with other types of cancer, which include a healthy diet, and regular screenings and self-exams to catch unusual, potentially cancerous growth as early as possible.