Dear Wanda Sykes: Unfortunately a BMX isn’t a Breast Cancer Cure, Either

I think I am becoming  Cliff Clavin. You know, that annoying person that keeps bringing up trivia: A peanut isn’t actually a nut. (It’s a legume aka bean.) A tomato isn’t actually a vegetable. (It’s a fruit.)

A prophylactic mastectomy isn’t actually a breast cancer cure. It does significantly reduces  breast cancer risk, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never develop the disease.

“Prophylactic mastectomy is highly effective,” reports Karen Kaplan in the LA Times Booster Shots blog. “Studies show it reduces the risk of developing breast cancer by 90 percent in moderate- and high-risk women.”

Comedian Wanda Sykes recently revealed she had a double mastectomy after a DCIS diagnosis in her left breast. Noting that her family has a history of breast cancer, Sykes said: “I had both breasts removed … because now I have zero chance of having breast cancer.”

In 2008, actress Christina Applegate declared herself cured after her prophylactic  BMX.

A a 90% percent risk reduction is nothing to sneeze at but it  isn’t exactly  the same as an iron-clad guarantee. That’s because some breast tissue remains behind even when the breasts are removed.

“Bilateral mastectomies as a treatment for breast cancer are not a cure,” Dr. Len Lichtenfeld wrote in 2008.   “They are the best strategy we have to reduce the risk of another breast cancer in the opposite breast, but they don’t remove risk completely.”

“Even in the hands of the best surgeons, bilateral mastectomies in a BRCA positive woman who has not had breast cancer reduces the risk of a new primary breast cancer to about 10%.  That’s because even in the best surgical hands, there is still some breast tissue left behind after these procedures.”

–Dr Len, August 30, 2008, “Did Christina Applegate Send The Right Message?”

Many African American women are reluctant to talk about their breast cancer. As Sykes joked:”I was like, I don’t know, should I talk about it or what? How many things could I have? I’m Black, then Lesbian. I can’t be the poster child for everything.”

So I applaud her for going public with her diagnosis. We don’t know the exact details of her case and of  course each person’s situation is different.  But as Dr. Len wrote following Christina Applegate’s 2008 news:   “There is something in our national psyche that makes the diagnosis of cancer in a celebrity something more important…for many of us their disease becomes our disease.”

Sykes alluded to her family history but didn’t reveal if she carries the BRCA1 mutation as Applegate does. Most cancer  just happens–it’s sporadic vs. heriditary. The majority of people who develop breast cancer didn’t inherit an abnormal breast cancer gene and have no family history.

But about five percent of people have a genetic mutation which predisposes  them to cancer. Two abnormal genes BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two) are associated with a higher lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

“[Applegate] selected bilateral mastectomies, which is a recommended treatment for women with BRCA1-related breast cancer,” Dr. Len observed. ” That’s because these cancers have a high likelihood to be bilateral at some time, and the mastectomy reduces the risk of additional breast cancer significantly.”

Dr. Len continued:

“We don’t know if Ms. Applegate’s breast cancer is cured.  We hope and pray it is—as we do for every woman who is diagnosed with this disease.

For most women with breast cancer, we know that the risk of recurrence stays with them throughout their lives.  Recent research reemphasized that point.  Women with breast cancer live with that reality every day of their lives.

We do applaud the awareness Ms. Applegate has brought to the issue of understanding your risk of breast cancer, and getting screened appropriately.  That means for women at high risk getting an annual MRI and mammogram, as recommended by recently released American Cancer Society guidelines…

Our progress in the treatment of breast cancer—and we have made a lot of progress–doesn’t come without the need to make certain that women are accurately informed about their breast cancer and their treatment options.

Giving false hope has been a hallmark of much of our past experience with cancer.”

–Dr Len, August 30, 2008, “Did Christina Applegate Send The Right Message?”

12 thoughts on “Dear Wanda Sykes: Unfortunately a BMX isn’t a Breast Cancer Cure, Either

  1. So glad you started this conversation. It does seem as though when a celebrity has breast cancer, hers is more important than ours. That’s probably because we’re not the ones on TV people are clapping for, but the danger of celebrity breast cancer is when they give out misinformation. They also either seem to trivialize breast cancer in general or make it sound like they’re cut from super human cloth. Either way, except for Elizabeth Edwards, I don’t feel like they’re one of us.

    • Cindy says:

      Yes, I recently saw this too. As a survivor, triple positive with bilateral mastectomy, I was shocked with her careless and thoughtless misinformation. People look up to Ellen and to Wanda, but I am disappointed in Ellen for not having a Dr. On the show to give it medical advice. However, Wanda Sykes hasn’t misrepresented herself and her facts.

  2. katie says:

    Thank you for bringing this up. I heard her say that and thought the same thing, Katherine.


  3. Katherine,

    You lit a fire under me this morning! I hadn’t heard about Wanda. I read your post. And I so agree with you!

    I just blogged about my own feelings regarding this whole “people in the public eye not telling it like it really is” deal.

    Thank you for being the inspiration and for bringing up this topic in the first place. 😉

  4. katherinembc says:

    I wish Wanda and her family the best. She does have a very good prognosis and it is true the majority of people with a BMX with DCIS won’t have a recurrence.

    Wanda did make me laugh when she said she’s now being invited to all these charity BC walks and she hates walking!

  5. MJ says:

    Wanda is a funny lady. I just wish so many people didn’t take what celebrities take as 100% truth (sigh).

  6. Excellent post, Katherine!

    I wish “cure” and “breast cancer” are only brought up together if there’s an actual cure. I got a preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction, and I know that I might get breast cancer again — if it hasn’t yet left my body: who knows?

    Thanks again for telling the truth and excellent reporting.

  7. Another great “nugget” of information, Katherine! It’s heartening to know that there are people out there who are paying attention to the waves of hype surrounding breast cancer. Celebrity stories, false advertising, festivities. The doctor’s admission — “Giving false hope has been a hallmark of much of our past experience with cancer” — is truly a remarkable statement. Hope involves a deep conversation with suffering and despair, yet these are the very elements that are omitted from so much of the cultural conversation. Instead, just “get your mammogram,” “have a prophylactic mastectomy,” “have faith in medical progress,” and “buy pink for the cure” is general rule of the day. Where’s the truth? The reality? The critical thinking? The evidence-based knowledge? Boggles my mind.

  8. Excellent words! I will laugh all day about the idea of being the Cliff Clavin of Breast Cancer! “It’s a little known fact, that, uh…” HAHA!

    Reality is what is needed. Realistic publicity, realistic expectations, realistic information on chances of breast cancer and the current absence of a “cure”.

    Thank you!

  9. Shaz says:

    I had a recurrence in my reconstructed breast, 8 years after my mx, and by talking to other breast cancer patients, I’ve found quite a lot of people in the same boat. In fact it has surprised me how common this is, and of all the people who have told me they have also experience recurrence after mx, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who feels they received sufficient information about it at the time of their first diagnosis. What ifs are just a waste of my time and energy nowadays but I can’t help thinking I might have been more vigilant and found the lump sooner if I’d been made more aware that breast cancer can and sometimes does recur after mx.

  10. I wrote a long comment, WordPress directed me to open an account and now my comment us gone. I don’t have the energy to write it again. It boils down to this: there are dangerous misconceptions out there, many of them promulgated by the breast cancer awareness movement which has led people to think, for example, that early detection is a cure. It is not. There is no cure for cancer–yet. Thank you for this blog. Keep shooting down those insidious beliefs that lull us into inaction. We still have a lot of work to do.

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