The Big Oops in Breast Cancer Surgery: When Removing a Healthy Breast May Not Help

Breast cancer is an unfortunate reality for many women worldwide. Upon developing cancer in one breast, some women choose to have the other breast removed as a preventive measure. Although this decision is understandable, recent research shows that undergoing this surgery can often be a painful and unnecessary mistake.

The University of Minnesota conducted a study that provides valuable insight into the matter. Researchers found that for most women, preventive mastectomy of a breast without cancer offers little to no health benefits.

In this article, we will delve into this surprising finding and explore the implications for women with breast cancer. By understanding the research, we can better inform and empower these women in their journey towards a healthier future.

Prophylactic Mastectomy and Survival Outcomes

The main objective of the study was to assess the survival outcomes of women who underwent preventive mastectomy. In simpler terms, the researchers wanted to find out if having the second breast removed extended the women’s lives.

It is important to note that the study excluded women with BRCA mutations. These genetic mutations increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer in both breasts, and these women typically should have a double mastectomy.

For the majority of women without BRCA mutations, the researchers discovered that preventive mastectomy might, at most, extend their life expectancy by less than six months. This finding questions the necessity of the surgery for these patients, as the benefits seem to be minimal.

When Is Preventive Mastectomy Beneficial?

Despite the limited benefits of the surgery for most women, the study identified specific circumstances in which preventive mastectomy could prove more helpful.

Firstly, the researchers found that younger women with breast cancer might benefit more from having a double mastectomy. This finding suggests that the women’s age plays a significant role in determining the effectiveness of the surgery.

Secondly, they discovered that women with stage I breast cancer and ER-negative (without estrogen receptors) breast cancer also experienced more positive outcomes with preventive mastectomies. While these cases represent a minority of women with breast cancer, it is vital to recognize and address their unique needs.

Potential Risks and Complications of Double Mastectomy

While it’s essential to discuss the benefits of double mastectomies in specific cases, it’s crucial to consider the risks and complications associated with the procedure.

The American Cancer Society outlines several potential effects and complications from mastectomies:

  • Pain and tenderness at the surgery site
  • Swelling
  • Hematoma (blood collecting in the wound)
  • Infection
  • Seroma (collection of lymphatic fluid in the wound)
  • Loss of sensation in the remaining chest wall and surrounding areas

These potential complications may negatively impact a woman’s life following surgery, diminishing its benefits, especially if the procedure wasn’t medically necessary in the first place.

Alternatives to Preventive Mastectomy

Knowing that a double mastectomy often provides minimal health benefits for women without BRCA mutations, it’s essential to explore alternative treatments and options for these patients. Fortunately, there are several ways women can address their breast cancer without undergoing a double mastectomy.

  1. Breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy): This procedure involves removing only the affected lump or tumor in the breast while leaving the rest of the breast intact.

  2. Radiation therapy: This treatment uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and can be an option following breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy.

  3. Chemotherapy: This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells and may be given before or after surgery.

  4. Hormone therapy: This treatment is suitable for hormone receptor-positive breast cancers and involves using medication to block hormones such as estrogen from fueling the cancer’s growth.

  5. Targeted therapy: This treatment targets specific cancer cell proteins that help these cells grow and divide.

It’s crucial to discuss these alternatives with a healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate course of action for each individual case.


The decision to undergo a double mastectomy is a personal one and should always be made in collaboration with a healthcare professional. However, it’s crucial to understand that for many women, this surgery might not provide significant health benefits.

In some cases, alternative treatments may be more appropriate and carry fewer risks and complications. The most important thing is to stay informed about the options and make the most educated decision for the individual’s unique circumstances.