Why a breast cancer diagnosis calls for a second opinion

Sometimes good advice can come in disguise.

And a perfect example of that can be found in an eye-opening press release issued by the University of Michigan.

The release was about a study which looked at the side effects of breast cancer treatments. But while the university’s Dr. Steven Katz rambles on and on about how patients need to get all their treatments “on time and on schedule,” he also reveals something else very troubling.

And it’s something that all women who are facing a diagnosis of breast cancer need to know about.

Measure twice

The Michigan team interviewed nearly 2,000 women who had received at least one breast cancer treatment — surgery (including a mastectomy), chemotherapy and radiation.

And while 93 percent suffered at least one side effect, nearly half reported such reactions to be severe or very severe. These included:

  • Pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Arm swelling
  • Breast skin irritation
  • Shortness of breath

Of course, we all know how harsh cancer treatments can be. But it’s still pretty shocking that close to half of the women called their treatment reactions severe.

As you might have guessed, women who had both chemo and radiation were most likely to land in the “very severe” extreme of side effects. And of these women, almost 10 percent were worried enough to visit their doctors. Five percent of them had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency care, due to adverse reactions.

Even the doctors involved in this study were stunned by these findings.

Co-author Dr. Allison Kurian said that she only sees a “tiny bit” of the fallout from treatments in her clinic, not the “whole of it in terms of how patients are suffering.”

Dr. Kurian also put her finger on a big part of the problem: a lack of communication between women and their doctors when it comes to talking about all the side effects involved, including how severe and disabling they can be.

But there’s even more to this story.

A few years ago, we told you about a breast cancer study in which researchers collected nine years of data from the health records of tens of thousands of Norwegian women. The study revealed that up to one in four had been over-diagnosed. That means that a cancer was detected that would never have caused any harm if left alone.

That’s just one of the dirty little secrets in breast cancer care these days. Another is the issue of false-positives — a diagnosis of what appears to be a cancer, but actually isn’t.

And contrary to what your doctor will probably tell you, mammograms play a big role in this problem.

Just a couple of years ago, we reported on a Harvard study that tracked 77,000 women who’d been told their mammogram results were “suspicious.”

When these women were called in for additional screenings and biopsies, nearly 99 percent of them turned out to be cancer-free.

Which leads me to something all women should do that could save a lot of them unnecessary pain and suffering — and something that the results of this new study show should be required before any breast cancer treatments are started.

And that’s to get a second opinion.

Certainly, saying you want a second opinion is easier said than done. You might feel uncomfortable about insisting on seeing another doctor — especially at a moment when your life feels like it’s been turned upside down.

But you need to be absolutely certain of two things: that a cancer diagnosis is accurate and that it calls for treatment.

Because the last thing you need is an extreme assault on your health when, in fact, it could be completely unnecessary.