02:14 - Source: CNN
Bold and Breastless: A Survivor's Story

Story highlights

Younger women with breast cancer are more likely to remove healthy breasts, a trend that varies by state, a study finds

"Sometimes, surgery is a blessing. ... It doesn't come complication-free," says a young survivor who shares her story

CNN —  

For many, the Fourth of July evokes jovial memories of backyard cookouts and fireworks, but for Amberlea Childs, the summer holiday conjures a haunting memory that changed her life.

Childs was diagnosed with breast cancer a day before July Fourth weekend in 2010.

She was 36, newly engaged, and had a lump the size of a large walnut in her right breast. She visited a radiologist to get it checked.

“He ended up doing five different biopsies, and on the last one, he pulled it out, and he looked at me, and his eyes welled up with water,” Childs said.

“It was definitely that out-of-body experience where you’re kind of watching your own story play out, and as his eyes welled up, he said, ‘I’m not 100% sure, but if I had to bet, I’m 99.9% sure what I just pulled out of your breast was breast cancer,’ ” Childs said.

Later on, once her diagnosis was confirmed, “I needed to have surgery.”

Amberlea Childs, third from the left, in treatment in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Amberlea Childs
Amberlea Childs, third from the left, in treatment in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Childs first opted to have a lumpectomy, in which only the cancerous mass in her breast was removed, but then the disease advanced. She was told that she would need another surgery. This time, she opted for a double mastectomy, in which both of her breasts – even the one without cancer – were removed.

“I wanted to do a mastectomy on that right side, and then from there, you have to then contemplate, ‘Well, should I do a prophylactic mastectomy on the other side that does not have cancer?’ ” Childs said. “Many women have this thought, but I feel for a younger woman – and I identify as a young survivor – you have longer to live, therefore you have a greater chance of recurrence just by the mere fact that you’re going to be alive longer.”

Since her cancer diagnosis, Childs has had nine surgeries to her chest. The double mastectomy was among the earliest.

Amberlea Childs, with her husband Donny, last year.
Amberlea Childs
Amberlea Childs, with her husband Donny, last year.

Now, she is a healthy 43-year-old Milwaukee resident and a breast health advocate with Susan G. Komen of Southeast Wisconsin. While chemotherapy treatments affected Childs’ fertility, she and her husband are preparing to adopt their first child, whom they can’t wait to meet.

“I am feeling wonderful. I can honestly say that my life is healthier, better directed after I’ve had cancer,” she said. “It gave me a different lens to look through life.”

Yet because of her experience, Childs can relate to the 7% of women with breast cancer who are diagnosed before age 40, many of whom face the same decision she did: whether to go under the knife for a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.

’The cancer didn’t develop overnight, so pump the brakes’

Younger women with breast cancer are increasingly opting to undergo double mastectomies, even if they were diagnosed with early-stage cancer in only one breast, known as unilateral breast cancer, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Surgery on Wednesday.

The procedure to remove the healthy breast along with the affected breast is called a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy, or CPM.

In certain states, more than 42% of women 20 to 44 who underwent surgery between 2010 and 2012 opted to remove both breasts with a CPM, the study found. Researchers now are hoping to determine why.

“To be honest, I think it’s very difficult to really pinpoint why the increase,” said Ahmedin Jemal, vice president of surveillance and health services research at the American Cancer Society, who was senior author of the study. However, he offered some ideas.

“One factor that could contribute to the increase is this desire for symmetry,” Jemal said, referencing how the breasts would look more symmetrical after a double mastectomy compared with after having just one breast removed.

“Another factor is probably the Angelina Jolie effect. She was diagnosed with the BRCA-1 cancer gene that mutation that causes breast cancer, and she had a double mastectomy, so that was covered widely in the media,” he said. “For women diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, there is no evidence to suggest to remove the unaffected breast.”

Last year, the American Society of Breast Surgeons published a consensus statement in the journal Annals of Surgical Oncology recommending against the routine use of removing both breasts in women with unilateral breast cancer – a recommendation that the American Board of Internal Medicine also made.

“CPM should be discouraged for an average-risk woman with unilateral breast cancer. However, patient’s values, goals, and preferences should be included to optimize shared decision making when discussing CPM. The final decision whether or not to proceed with CPM is a result of the balance between benefits and risks of CPM and patient preference,” the statement said.

Even if a CPM procedure is to prevent cancer from developing in the healthy breast, Jemal said, “the maximum is 6% of women will develop breast cancer on the unaffected breast within the next 10 years. It is very small.”

On the other hand, the most common second cancer in breast cancer survivors is another breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

A healthy 55-year-old woman has about a 2.5% chance of developing invasive cancer in a given breast over the next 15 years, whereas a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor has a 10% to 15% chance, according to a paper published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2010.

About 12.4% of women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Sometimes, surgery is a blessing, and it can help remove cancer and do great things, but it doesn’t come cost-free, and it doesn’t come complication-free,” Childs, the breast cancer survivor, said.

“There is going to be time that’s needed to heal and recover, and if you’re not willing to give yourself that time, maybe you should weigh that into your decision if it was lumpectomy versus mastectomy, but I think, do the homework. Don’t rush into something so quickly. Take the time, get that extra opinion, meet with one more plastic surgeon,” she said.

“This is the best piece of advice I’ve been told and I always share with other women: The cancer didn’t develop overnight, so pump the brakes and take more time to make the best informed decision for you.”

Differences in mastectomies, by age

The new study included data on 1.2 million women 20 and older in the United States who were diagnosed with early-stage invasive unilateral breast cancer between 2004 and 2012. The data came from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

The researchers took a close look at which patients in the data underwent a lumpectomy; a unilateral mastectomy, in which only the breast with cancer is removed; or a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy.

A limitation, however, was that the researchers were unable to determine which patients may have been at a higher risk for a second cancer due to family history or genetic risk, as well as their socioeconomic status. Those factors are individually associated with the likeliness of receiving a CPM.

“Genetic testing is more commonly performed in younger women with breast cancer, and genetic predispositions are more common,” said Dr. Michael Sabel, a professor of surgical oncology and the chief of the division of surgical oncology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the new study.

“Many of these women may have had CPM because they harbor a genetic mutation, but I don’t think the authors had that data,” he said.

Among all the women in the study, 58.4% had a lumpectomy, 32.9% had only the breast with cancer removed, and 8.7% had both breasts removed.

The researchers found that the proportion of women opting for CPM declined with age. Only 2.4% of those 70 or older had both breasts removed, compared with 29.3% of those 20 to 29.

Nationally, the prevalence of CPMs also increased over time. Between 2004 and 2012, the number of women 45 and older who had both breasts removed jumped from 3.6% to 10.4%. For women 20 to 44, the number rose from 10.5% to 33.3%.

“It is not surprising that younger women opt for CPM compared to older. The issue is what contributes to such a decision. This trend is multifactorial,” said Dr. Francisco Esteva, a medical oncologist at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center, who was not involved in the new study.