A UCSB feminist studies professor is offering a new perspective on the growing use of prophylactic mastectomies, the surgical removal of one or both breasts, as a possible key to breast cancer prevention.

As Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie became one of the most recent examples of women striving to reduce their risk of breast cancer through use of mastectomy, associate professor of feminist studies Laury Oaks has touched on the discourse of practicing such a method of relative prevention. Specifically, Oaks has put focus on media reports accounting for the growth of dramatic measures to avoid cancer, taken within the past few years by people coined under the term “previvors.” These individuals carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, yet have not been diagnosed with the disease.

According to Oaks, who specializes in reproductive politics and the anthropology of health, medicine and science, prophylactic mastectomies are not necessarily completely preventative of breast cancer and using this measure may not be effective for all women.

“An important point to emphasize is that risks of breast cancer are not brought to ‘zero’ even with a prophylactic mastectomy,” Oaks said in an email. “‘Preventing cancer’ would better be phrased as ‘reducing the risk [or] chance of cancer.’”

However, there is also an increased risk of ovarian cancer associated with the same BRCA1 genetic mutations, according to Oaks, who said this correlation brings up issues of its own. For example, surgical removal of the ovaries may lead to early symptoms of menopause for premenopausal females.

Furthermore, Oaks noted that it is a common misconception is that surgery reduces or eliminates cancer, and added that such a notion may affect not only women’s physical well-being but also their mental health. In a research project entitled, “Strengthening Genetic Counseling Outreach: A Comparative Study of Heredity Cancer Risk,” Oaks compared various perceptions of such cancer risks.

The research project was funded by the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and included the collection of interviews, focus groups and a telephone survey on local Latino and white residents regarding their perceptions of cancer risk and access to cancer services, Oaks said.

Research results indicated that not all women have the same access to information about the health risks and benefits of various preventative measures. Moreover, Oaks said the most pressing issue regarding prophylactic mastectomies is the unavailability of the procedures for those who lack access to quality healthcare services in the United States.

In light of these concerns, Oaks said she hopes to increase the quality of healthcare through continued research and courses emphasizing women’s health issues and the women’s health advocacy movement.

“As a society, we can advocate for diverse women to have this same power of decision by supporting access to affordable, quality healthcare for all,” Oaks said in an email.



A version of this article appeared on page 4 of the May 20, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.