Primum Non Nocere

I don’t have much in the way of eyebrows.  They were victims of too much plucking back in the 1960’s and when you do that, sometimes they don’t grow back.  There’s a very nice woman in Solana Beach who shapes and darkens what I have left, infrequently, when I bother to think about it which isn’t very often.  I was in there about a year ago when she told me, “I won’t be at work for the next six weeks or so—I’m having some surgery.”  Never shy when it comes to these issues, I asked, “What kind of surgery?”  She said, a little too casually, “I’m having double mastectomies and latissimus flap reconstructions.”  I said, “Why are you doing that?”  She said, “Because I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ on the left, and I just want them both OFF.”  Ductal carcinoma in situ is what we call Stage Zero breast cancer—non life-threatening, but it does need to be treated because in some cases it can progress to invasive breast cancer.  Treatment options range from excision only, to excision plus radiation, to simple mastectomy for more extensive cases.  In NO case, unless the patient carries the breast cancer gene, BRCA 1 or 2, as Angelina Jolie did, is bilateral mastectomy the recommended treatment.

Again, I said to this nice forty year old woman with no family history of breast cancer, “Did you at least SEE a radiation oncologist for an opinion?  This is what I do for a living, you know.”  She said, “No, I did not.  My surgeon drew me pictures of the procedures, and he said I’d be back at work within a few weeks. This is what I want.  I have a six year old son.  I do not want to die of breast cancer.”  Her mind was made up.  In situations like this, I may offer an unsolicited opinion, but here my opinion was clearly not wanted.  This was the right choice for her.  It’s what she needed for “peace of mind,” and I was not going to stand in her way.  She had her bilateral mastectomies, and her reconstructions, and true to her surgeon’s word, she was back at work within six weeks.  She was very pleased with, and relieved by her outcome.

There are a couple of problems with this scenario.  First of all, my breast cancer treating colleagues and I have noted a somewhat alarming rise in the rate of double mastectomies for unilateral breast cancer in non BRCA positive patients.  The rationale for this is typically, “I want to do everything I can to reduce the chance of the breast cancer coming back”, but sometimes it’s “I want a matched set!”  What patients are often failing to realize, and are being failed by their physicians in terms of their education, is that the biggest risk they have of actually dying is from the breast cancer they already HAVE, not the breast cancer they might be diagnosed with in the future.  Once a woman has been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, the risk of developing a contralateral breast cancer is about 1% per year, and the vigilance is stepped up accordingly—mammograms are no longer designated as “screening” but rather as “diagnostic”, and MRI’s are more frequently covered by insurance, not to mention the frequent blood work and body scans obtained in more advanced cases.

Second, prophylactic mastectomy and breast reconstruction is neither risk free nor does it often result in a “perfect breast”.  Infections can occur, implants can be extruded, flaps can fail, and even if none of these things happen, the resulting reconstructed breast is insensate—in other words, it doesn’t FEEL like a breast to the woman who is wearing it.  Even in a skin sparing, nipple sparing mastectomy, the nerve endings are cut.  If an abdominal flap is used, the abdominal musculature is compromised—important for women who are athletic and need these muscles.  The same goes for a latissimus flap.  Not to mention the fact that many woman who are diagnosed with breast cancer are still of childbearing age and many still plan to have children.  One can breast feed an infant with one breast, but not with bilateral mastectomies and reconstructions.

So if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, please think long and hard about your treatment options and about what the goal is, which is to obtain local control of the cancer typically by either removing the breast, or by having lumpectomy and radiation therapy.  The “peace of mind” obtained by removing the opposite healthy breast in a BRCA negative patient is not only just a pleasant mythology, but is also potentially dangerous, putting a patient at risk for complications when she needs to be healing and considering the adjuvant therapy, whether that be hormonal therapy or chemotherapy or radiation to the chest wall or affected breast, which will truly reduce her risk of recurrence and extend her life.  And we physicians need to remember that principle of “Primum non nocere”—First, do no harm.  We don’t remove other paired organs just because one is diseased, and we shouldn’t be doing it with breasts either.  In my opinion, of course!

The Way I See It

When it comes to surgery for cancer, having a “positive margin” is a bad thing.  It means that when the surgeon said he “got it all,” even though he meant it with all of his heart, likely he didn’t.  For a woman undergoing a lumpectomy for breast cancer, that positive margin means a re-excision of the lumpectomy site or alternatively, a mastectomy.  For a woman who has just had a mastectomy, it means that she will likely be seeing me.

I saw a new breast cancer patient on Thursday, a very attractive woman in her early fifties.  She had undergone a mastectomy last March, and had a tissue expander placed at the time to facilitate a later reconstruction with a silicone implant.  The final pathology showed positive lymph nodes on her sentinel node biopsy, and a positive margin where the tumor was close to the chest wall.  She required chemotherapy because of her lymph node involvement, and radiation to her chest wall for the tumor cells that may have been left behind.  She finished her chemotherapy without any difficulty in June.  But instead of coming to me at that time, she elected to complete her reconstruction first.

The first time her expander was replaced with a permanent implant, in August, there were complications which resulted in a failed reconstruction. The plastic surgeon elected to take her back to surgery in November, and replace the implant, and transfer fat cells from her inner thighs to make the reconstructed breast rounder and more perfect.  When the patient saw me on Thursday, she was still not entirely happy with the result, and was looking forward to having additional fat transplanted in the upper inner quadrant.  She guided my hand to the area and said, “See?  The tissue is so THIN right there.”  I stared at her reconstruction in amazement.  It was one of the best I had ever seen.

But yes, there was a problem.  It was not a problem that she had concerned herself with.  The problem was that it was nine months after her mastectomy, and that no one had pointed out to her that a local recurrence of her breast cancer, for which she was certainly at high risk, is a harbinger of metastatic disease and death.  In other words, she had failed to grasp the fact that it was her cancer, and not her breast reconstruction, that she needed to pay attention to.  It took me the better part of an hour and a half to convince her that she should proceed with radiation BEFORE her plastic surgeon achieved the perfection that she sought, and BEFORE her cancer recurred, if it has not already.

I understand the importance of breast reconstruction, and of feeling whole, and feminine again.  But I also understand the evil nature of “the beast.”  I may be a curmudgeon, but I want my ladies to comprehend that it’s not about the boob and the plastic surgeon isn’t going to tell you that—that’s MY job.  First and foremost, pure and simple, it’s about getting rid of the cancer. That’s the only priority.  It’s just the way I see it.