It’s been a hotly debated issue for families who carry a genetic predisposition to develop ovarian and/ or breast cancer. Should women who have the genetic mutation undergo aggressive surgeries? Or is it overzealous to remove a woman’s breasts and ovaries that appear perfectly healthy, with no sign of cancer?
A new, extensive study was just released in the Journal of the American Medical Association after following nearly 2,500 women with the genetic mutations, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, at 22 cancer centers. Normal BRCA genes are tumor suppressors, killing cells that try to form cancer tumors. But, in some families, a mutation of the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene obstructs this suppressor function, dramatically increasing a woman’s risk of getting the diseases.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “the likelihood that a breast and/or ovarian cancer is associated with a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is highest in families with a history of multiple cases of breast cancer, cases of both breast and ovarian cancer, one or more family members with two primary cancers (original tumors that develop at different sites in the body), or an Ashkenazi Jewish background. However, not every woman in such families carries a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, and not every woman who has a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will develop breast and/or ovarian cancer.”
Statistically, a woman who is BRCA1 or BRCA2 positive is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not have it.
According to Dr. Timothy Rebbeck of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, “our findings show that women who choose to have these surgeries will reduce their risk of dying of breast or ovarian cancer by about 70 to 80 percent. There really isn't anything else that can reduce a woman's risk by this much."
Doctors usually recommend that women who test positive for the genes have their ovaries removed at around age 35, but can delay until age 40 if they haven't finished having children.