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Low risk cancer patients remove healthy breast despite limited benefits

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CHESTER, Va. -- In a Race For The Cure picture from 2014, Carrie Persing and her daughter are seen supporting a friend battling breast cancer. Just three days later, Carrie, a 43-year-old math teacher from Chester, would get the same diagnosis.

“You get scared because you’re not sure what the outcome is. I thought about my family. I thought about my aunt who had gone through cancer,” Persing said.

Persing’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46. She went through chemotherapy and radiation. 19 years later, Carrie's aunt would get cancer in her other breast.

Persing’s aunt

Persing’s aunt

" I had already made the decision if I ever was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would a bilateral mastectomy,” Persing said.

She removed the healthy breast over concerns of getting cancer in that breast down the road.

“I didn't want to spend my life going every three to six months worrying about my next doctor's visit and that I was going to get breast cancer again ,” Persing said.

Carrie Persing

Carrie Persing

Dr. Harry Bear, chair of surgical oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center, said there is no proven survival benefit to removing the other breast.

Bear backs up a study that looked at 500,000 low risk patients.

It showed the rate of removing the healthy breast -- called a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy -- has tripled from 3.9 percent in 2002 to 12.7 percent in 2012.

But the study found no significant benefit for the patient. In fact, Bear said the likelihood of a woman getting another breast cancer in the other breast is somewhere between 2.5 percent to 5 percent.

"I think it's my obligation to make sure they're informed and understand what the remaining breast can do and what it doesn't do," Bear said. "In a sense, I do kind of make an attempt to talk them out of it. I certainly wouldn’t refuse to do it.”

Hollywood star Angelina Jolie had the same surgery, but she is considered high risk for breast cancer.

“Angelina has a known inherited, genetic mutation in all the cells of her body which put her at an extremely high risk for breast cancer,” Bear said.

Researchers noted the aggressive treatment did improve the survival odds for patients with BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations and a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

Even though Persing is not in that high risk category, there have been no regrets.

“For me, it was the best decision I could make," Persing said.

Persing is cancer free and so is her aunt.

Carrie and her daughter will be walking in the Race For The Cure event again this year to celebrate her journey.

A previous version of this story used the term "recurrence" in reference to the breast cancer. That is not the case.

"If a woman has breast cancer in one breast and down the road she develops breast cancer in the other breast, that is not considered a recurrence of the original breast cancer. That is considered a new diagnosis of breast cancer -- a second case of cancer altogether," a VCU Massey Cancer Center spokeswoman said. "In order for it to be considered a recurrence, the original cancer would have to come back in the same breast and then spread to the other breast.