Mastectomy debate: Much-needed information or fueling hysteria?

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2013 - 11:19 PM

Some say publicizing issue helps; others say it’s gone too far.

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Angelina Jolie

Photo: Michael Sohn, Associated Press

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There was a time when breast cancer was discussed in whispers. Mastectomies, hardly at all.

Not anymore.

Awareness of the disease and one of its most drastic treatment options rocked Facebook this week when the social media giant bowed to public pressure and allowed post-mastectomy photographs on the site.

Coming on the heels of Angelina Jolie’s revelation that she had a preventive double mastectomy, talk of the very personal procedure has never been so public.

Yet some are wondering if the increased exposure is providing much-needed information or fueling hysteria about breast cancer.

“The pendulum may have swung a little bit too much from awareness to paralyzing fear,” said Dr. Todd Tuttle, chief of surgical oncology at the University of Minnesota.

Breast cancer survivor Denise Blumberg-Tendle, of Plymouth, thinks otherwise. “I really believe knowledge is power,” she said.

Without a doubt, breast cancer is a deadly disease. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 234,000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 40,000 will die from the disease.

Research has shown, however, that women overestimate their risk of developing breast cancer, Tuttle said.

His own study revealed that when told they had a risk factor in one breast, women increasingly opted for preventive double mastectomies. The number of women choosing the procedure jumped 188 percent from 1998 to 2005.

“I worry that a lot of women may choose to do irreversible surgical procedures because of this unrealistic fear,” he said.

Pressuring Facebook

The photos that spurred a New York cancer patient to petition Facebook — ultimately garnering more than 20,000 signatures on Change.org — are tasteful but jarring images taken by fashion photographer David Jay. He founded the SCAR Project to show the effects of breast cancer.

He posted a set of the photos on Facebook after Jolie’s announcement, only to have Facebook remove them.

Scorchy Barrington, the woman battling Stage IV breast cancer who launched the petition, applauded Facebook’s newly clarified nudity policy and emphasized the awareness raised by the SCAR Project.

“We want the world to know that breast cancer is not a pink ribbon — it is traumatic, it is life-changing, and it urgently needs a cure,” she said in a written statement.

In announcing the policy, Facebook said that post-mastectomy photos have always been permitted, but nudity is not. The issue has come up before when the social network and its users sparred over breastfeeding photographs.

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