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Breast Cancer Health Center

U.S. Women More Likely to Have Mastectomy

Doctors May Be Biased Despite Equal Lumpectomy Effectiveness
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 13, 2002 (San Antonio, Texas) -- American women with breast cancer may want to seek a second opinion before having a mastectomy, suggests a new study. Researchers found that all other things being equal, U.S. doctors are much more likely to perform a mastectomy than British physicians.

The findings come at a time when lumpectomy, in which the tumor itself and surrounding breast tissue is removed, has clearly been shown to be as effective at saving lives as the more disfiguring mastectomy (complete breast removal).

"When a doctor recommends mastectomy, you have to ask, 'Why?'" says study researcher Gershon Locker, MD, professor of medicine at Northwestern University. "Lumpectomy is a very reasonable alternative for many women."

There are some women for whom mastectomy is a better choice, such as if her breast tumor is very large, he says. "But the patient should participate in the decision-making process."

Locker reported the study at the 25th Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

He looked back at more than 9,000 women enrolled in a large international study. All the women had undergone either a mastectomy or lumpectomy. Both groups of women were deemed to be equal as far as breast-cancer stage.

In the U.S., 51% of women had a mastectomy; in the U.K., 42% had this same surgery. "This means American doctors are [statistically] 21% more likely to perform a mastectomy than British doctors," Locker says.

To find out why, Locker performed a sophisticated statistical analysis that took into account factors such as large tumor size that might make mastectomy a better choice than breast conserving surgery.

Ironically, when these factors were taken into account, American women were even more likely -- 43% more likely -- to have a mastectomy than their British counterparts, Locker says.

"For whatever reason, there is either a bias on the part of the doctor or on the part of the patient to do more mastectomies in the U.S.," he says.

Physician bias is "the factor we really have to be concerned about," says Larry Norton, MD, head of the Division of Solid Tumor Oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

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