Preventative surgery for breast, ovarian cancers

August 31, 2010 3:12:04 PM PDT
It's unknown why nearly 200,000 women yearly develop breast cancer.

It's believed that from 5 to 10% of them may do so because of two mutated genes.

The genes are called BRCA-1 and BRCA-2.

A new study now shows the effects of surgery on improving a woman's overall survival.

Women who have the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes are at an increased risk not only for beast cancer, but also for ovarian cancer.

Many who have no sign of disease, have opted to have mastectomies or oophorectomies, which is ovary removal.

Now, a study shows the effect this move could have.

Sandra Cohen found herself with a difficult decision to make.

After losing her mother and grandmother to the disease, Sandra lived each day wondering when she would be diagnosed.

She opted to have preventive breast and ovarian surgery.

"It's kind of like you are sitting on a time bomb waiting for cancer to occur, and it really does a number on you mentally to deal with that every single day," Cohen said.

"We've known for several years that removing ovaries decreases the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer but what we've been able to clearly demonstrate now is that, that reduction in risk translates to women living longer," said Dr. Susan M. Domchek, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

To make that point, Dr. Domchek and colleagues studies 2,400 women with either one or both of the mutated genes.

They looked at records for the 35 years before 2009.

"Women who had their ovaries removed had a decrease in the risk of breast cancer, a decrease in the risk of ovarian cancer and in addition, they were less likely to die of breast cancer, less likely to die of ovarian cancer and also had an improvement in their overall survival," Dr. Domchek said.

They also discovered another difference.

"The risk of breast cancer for instance was decreased by 40% in women who had BRCA-1 mutations and 60% in women who had BRCA-2 mutations," Dr. Domchek said.

It's, information that women found to carry the gene can use to make a very personal decision.

"One of the most important aspects of this study is that women who have a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer should really consider getting genetic testing," Dr. Domchek said.

If found to have the genes, Sandra had some advise to offer.

"Do some research with a genetic counselor, meet other women who have gone through it, it really will empower you and give you the strength to take some action," Cohen said.

The study will appear in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of the Medical Association.

The important thing to remember, is that women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer should only be tested after speaking to a genetics counselor.