Are double mastectomies accessible for Arkansans?

Katherina Yancy and Sandy Dolberg

LITTLE ROCK (KATV) - A preventive mastectomy can reduce the risk of breast cancer for people considered high risk of developing the disease. It's become an increasingly common procedure, but how accessible is the procedure for your average Arkansan?

Tuesday, actress and activist Angelina Jolie announced she had it done after genetic testing and doctors estimated she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer. Cancer took the life of her own mother at only 56.

In a New York Times editorial, Jolie wrote that her mother "held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her. We often speak of mommy's mommy, and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me."

Breast cancer alone kills about 458,000 people each year. It is estimated that one in 300 to one in 500 women carry a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation, as Jolie does, but most people don't have her resources. (BRCA stands for breast cancer susceptibility gene)

Sandy Dolberg looks at pictures, "It's been almost 20-years this year. A lot of the memories have faded but there is a lot that really makes me smile."

Sandy was just 11 years old when her mom, Phyllis died of breast cancer, even after having a mastectomy. "She went from a very vibrant woman, woman who fought the hardest to beat this horrible disease to 70, 80 pounds, lying in a hospital bed."

It's a disease she lives in fear of and considers herself high risk. "I was probably 20 when I found a lump. I don't know what it was. They said it was probably a blocked duct, but the doctor I went to said, 'oh you don't need a mammogram, you're too young.'

Sandy remains cancer free but wants to get screened and undergo a double mastectomy. "I would do it if I could; I would do it in a heartbeat." However, the BRCA genetic blood test cost about $3,000 and counseling is recommended before and after. Plus reconstructive surgery can cost upwards of $50,000. Sandy adds, "For those of us with insurance it is still a pretty penny out of our pockets."

She looks at the pictures, "You get through it but it is something you never get over."

Sandy does a breast self exam every month. Aside from surgery, there's preventative medication. Some good news, in 1998, Congress passed a bill requiring women without insurance to be offered reconstructive options.

It is important to remember, men get breast cancer too.

For more information on BRCA, click here.