Why are so many women having healthy breasts removed?

A cancer diagnosis is terrifying. It can cause even the most level-headed people to make radical decisions to protect themselves.

In the case of breast cancer, that is increasingly taking the form of unnecessary mastectomy. It’s becoming more and more common for women who are diagnosed with cancer in one breast to opt to have both breasts removed.

And on the one hand, who can blame them? As I said, cancer causes people to panic. They want it out of their bodies, once and for all. And if one breast could have the dreaded disease, who’s to say that the other breast isn’t next? What’s the harm in removing it — just to be safe?

But on the other hand, this surgery is intense. It involves an incision from the sternum to the underarm and the complete removal of a healthy breast. After the surgery, the woman has no sensation in that area at all. Which might be a sacrifice worth making if it actually had the desired effect.

The fact is, though, that it offers almost no survival advantage, except in the women with the highest risk. And it’s not the women with the highest risk who are lining up in droves to have it done.

In fact, a full 25 percent of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients in the United States are now opting to have the unaffected breast removed. Compare that to 10 years ago, when not even 5 percent of breast cancer patients were taking this radical preventive step.

This trend is especially disturbing when you consider the fact that in many cases, the breast cancer diagnosis is one that years ago wouldn’t have even been noticed. Often, the cancer diagnosis is ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. DCIS is basically tiny flecks of calcium deposits in the breast. These usually weren’t even seen before the widespread embrace of mammograms and other breast screening programs.

Doctors have treated DCIS aggressively, assuming that in doing so they’d be preventing more invasive, deadly breast cancer. But unfortunately that hasn’t been the case. Even as more and more cases of DCIS have been caught early, thanks to better screening, invasive breast cancer rates have held steady.

So it seems we’re identifying and treating DCIS — aggressively, I might add — with no payoff. We are treating problems that would have been better off left alone.

Now it is true that there’s been a modest improvement in cancer survival rates. The five-year survival rate for all cancers combined has climbed to over 60 percent. That was 50 percent in the 1970s. That’s largely attributable to earlier detection, so I’m not saying that better screening is a bad thing. Just that we need to be judicious in what we do with the information we get from these tests.

The answer is not overtreatment or overly aggressive treatment. It’s not to throw the latest, strongest drugs at the disease. (Especially when you consider the fact that fewer than half of new cancer drugs prolong survival by more than a few months over older drugs. And add to that the fact that their safety hasn’t been proven.)

The cancer establishment has got to come to grips with over-treatment, and how screening is sending some people down a road of aggressive treatment they should never have been on.

And breast cancer isn’t the only one that’s overdiagnosed. As many as 60 percent of the prostate cancers and 70 percent of thyroid cancers diagnosed by more aggressive screening didn’t need to be treated.

We’ve become good at finding tumors — but not so good at knowing what to do about them. And more importantly, we haven’t ironed out which ones we ought to be doing something about and which we should leave alone.

DCIS is the perfect example. After a decade of diagnosing and treating 60,000 cases a year of DCIS often with radical mastectomy (in the U.S. alone), the incidence of invasive breast cancer hasn’t fallen.

I know that a cancer diagnosis is scary. But sometimes the best course of action when we receive a scary diagnosis is to take a deep breath and exercise patience. Because sometimes doing more isn’t only not helpful, it’s harmful.

To read more about natural strategies that can help you avoid ever facing these sorts of decisions — as well as alternative options for fighting this terrifying disease — check out my report Cancer-Free for Life. You can learn more about it or order a copy by clicking here.