By Shannon Clarke
Image courtesy of jennifer donley via Flickr.
When Miss America contestant Allyn Rose announced she was having a double mastectomy, the pageant world reacted in horror. Despite the fact that her mother, great aunt and grandmother had all passed away from breast cancer, pageant watchers and some non-pageant watchers couldn’t understand why Rose, 24, would surgically remove her breasts.
“If there’s something that I can do to be proactive, it might hurt my body, it might hurt my physical beauty, but I’m going to be alive,” Rose told the Associated Press in January.
The move is baffling to some. The removal of her breasts would make the University of Maryland politics student a first for the 92-year-old competition, long derided for its glorification of femininity and the ideal female form. Rose said many people told her not to “mutilate” her body, but at her father’s insistence, she changed her mind.
“I’ve been thinking how powerful that might be to have a Miss America say, ’I might be Miss America but I’m still going to have surgery. I’m going to take control of my own life, my own health care,'” she told the Associated Press.
She lost the crown to New York’s Mallory Hagan in January, but her decision led to (at least briefly) a discussion on early screening and prevention of breast cancer, and how society defines a beautiful body.
“What’s the primary outcome? I’d say quality of life,” said Dr. Steven Norad. He is the director of the Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit at Women’s College Hospital. “For some women, body image is the most important thing for quality of life. For other people it’s freedom, for other people it’s not being part of the medical establishment.”
Dr. Narod has spent his career researching genetic breast cancer. His work has focused on reducing the risk and mortality among women who carry genetic mutations for the disease and finding alternative treatments for patients who opt out of mastectomies, the only 100 per cent defense against that cancer.
In the 90’s, lumpectomies (which involves removing the cancerous tumor) were “a god send” for women who wanted to keep their breasts. But the National Post reported an increase in women asking for preventative mastectomies between 1998 and 2007.
Dr. Narod has a few guesses why some patients are choosing mastectomies over lumpectomies.
“Plenty of [women] get a re-occurrence and need a second operation. It’s generally mastectomy plus radiotherapy. Third, the risk of cancer remains and fourth and you’re under surveillance,” he said.
According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 9 women will develop with breast cancer in their lifetime, and it is the number one killer of women over 20. More of those women will survive than ever before, thanks to increased screening and improved treatment.
It’s not a risk-free surgery. There’s a chance of healing complications and infection, and no surgeon would agree to perform the operation without justification, says Dr. Narod.
“The question is: how high should the risk [of cancer] be before we do it?” he says.
Whether Rose’s surgery will drive more women to seek the operation or not is another issue. But she isn’t the first person whose mastectomy has been publicized and discussed. Sharon Osbourne, Kathy Bates, Giuliana Rancic and Wanda Sykes have all been vocal about their mastectomies and have used their celebrity to speak about the disease.
In 2011, Statistics Canada found that cancer was the leading cause of death in nationwide for the first time.