Feature Archive

Do I Keep My Breasts?

Preventive mastectomy.

WebMD Feature

Aug. 21, 2000 -- Breast cancer runs in Vicki Small's family. Her mother died of the disease; her sister has battled it. So three years ago the 40-year-old New Jersey woman got tested for the breast cancer gene. Doctors searched for mutations in her DNA, which -- if present -- could give her up to an 80% chance of inheriting the disease.

Although Small was healthy with no hint of cancer, her tests came back positive. She agonized for weeks, then chose a drastic measure that many women in good health would find unthinkable: She decided to have her breasts and ovaries surgically removed. "Although I wanted to have more children, I figured it would be better to be alive for the two I already had," she says.

Now that tests are available to identify mutations of the breast cancer gene, known as BRCA, women can find out whether they are at greatly increased risk of developing the disease -- even if they're cancer-free so far. The question is: What should they do with that knowledge? According to a study published in the June 10, 2000 issue of the Lancet, 50% are choosing preventive double mastectomies, meaning that both of their breasts are removed.

That decision comes with a lot of sleepless nights and troubling questions these women must grapple with. It's one that will radically change their lives. "You're taking away a part of the female body," says Small. "But I saw what my mother and sister went through, and I didn't want to repeat that."