What is a Mastectomy? Angelina Jolie's Preventative Cancer Treatment Understood

On Tuesday, Angelina Jolie announced in a New York Times op-ed that she decided to undergo a double mastectomy in order to eliminate her chances of breast cancer. After being detected with the faulty BRCA1 gene, which highly increases the chance of breast cancer, and from her mother’s struggle and eventual death from ovarian cancer, she decided to undergo the surgery along with breast reconstruction in order to be able to be there for her six children and her partner, Brad Pitt.

The surgery made her chances of developing breast cancer drop from 87% to under 5%.

Say goodbye to (a higher chance of) breast cancer Angelina!

Given Jolie’s personal, but public disclosure of her treatment and the reasoning behind it, here’s some information for you to better understand what a mastectomy is, and what its implications are for those who might wish to make a similar choice.

1. A Mastectomy removes some or all of the breast tissue

[Source: Breastcancer.org]

There are many different types of mastectomies. The word “mastectomy” generally refers to a surgery in which some or all of the breast tissue is removed, while a “double mastectomy” (the surgery Jolie went through) refers to the removal of both breasts. However, even within these definitions are many different types of mastectomies.

A skin sparing mastectomy removes all of the breast tissue except for the breast skin, while a nipple-sparing mastectomy (as the name implies) removes all of the breast tissue except for the nipple and the areola. There is also a modified radical mastectomy, where both breast tissues and the lymph nodes in the underarm are removed. It’s important to understand that there are many different types of a mastectomy if you’re considering getting one, and it’s important to talk with your doctor to truly understand which one (if any one) is the best option for you.

2. Mastectomies can be done for treatment and for prevention, and a preventative mastectomy is not unheard of

Mastectomies are not only for patients already diagnosed with breast cancer. While they are used for treatment, they are also used for prevention, as in Jolie’s case.

It’s not also unheard of for a mastectomy to be used as a preventative measure. Other celebrities who underwent a preventative mastectomy include actress Christina Applegate and Miss America contestant Allyn Rose.

3. Men can get mastectomies too

Between 2010 and 2011 in England, surgeons performed more than 18,000 mastectomies, of which more than 1,000 were for male patients. Therefore, while it is less common for a man to get a mastectomy, it’s also wrong to think that this is a surgery only for women.

4. Mastectomies are becoming more common than ever in the U.S.

According to unpublished data released to CNN, the number of patients seeking a preventative mastectomy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has risen from 8 percent in 2010, to 12.6 percent in 2011, and 14 percent in 2012. Moreover, according to New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the rate for women choosing to receive a double mastectomy when only one breast had cancer jumped from 6.7 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 2005. And according to statistics by the National Cancer Institute, the overall proportion of women seeking mastectomies has risen between 2005 and 2009.

There are many different reasons that this could be the case. One can be greater access to genetic screening, which can better determine one’s risk for developing breast cancer. Another can be advances in plastic surgery that make breast reconstruction easier and more comfortable, making people less worried about the surgery.

[Source: Solaris Medical Spa] 

While many people can get a mastectomy for different reasons, and it can mean different things for different people, for Jolie it came down to being able to be around for the people she loved. Moreover, she has stated that this surgery has made her “feel empowered” and that she made a “strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.

And I agree. You stay fierce Angelina!