Women who’ve inherited mutations of the BRCA gene could dramatically reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancer by having their ovaries removed by age 35, a new study suggests.
The international team of researchers who followed nearly 6,000 women with BRCA mutations for an average of 5.6 years found that preventive removal of the ovaries, called oophorectomy, reduced the risk of ovarian cancer by 80 percent and the risk of death from any cause by 77 percent, according to the study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
The study also found that women with the BRCA1 mutation were at a much greater risk of ovarian cancer than those with BRCA2 mutations.
“To me, waiting to have oophorectomy until after 35 is too much of a chance to take,” said Dr. Steven Narod, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author. “These data are so striking that we believe prophylactic oophorectomy by age 35 should become a universal standard for women with BRCA1 mutations. Women with BRCA2 mutations, on the other hand, can safely delay surgery until their 40s, since their ovarian cancer risk is not as strong.”
Narod and his colleagues followed 5,787 women with the mutations, some for as long as 16 years. At the study’s outset, 2,123 women had already had an oophorectomy. Another 1,390 received the surgery during the course of the study, while 2,274 eschewed the surgery.
For women carrying the BRCA1 gene, the researchers estimated that delaying surgery until age 40 raised the risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer to 4 percent, while waiting till age 50 hiked that risk to 14.2 percent. This is compared to the rate among those who had an oophorectomy before age 40: 1.5 percent.
Experts agreed that the new study underscores the importance of early oophorectomy in women carrying the BRCA1 mutation.
“Until now, our recommendations for prevention of ovarian cancer have been identical for women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. This study changes that,” said Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, medical director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington. “Women with BRCA1 mutations are at higher risk of ovarian cancer in their late 30s while women with BRCA2 mutations have no appreciable risk until after age 40. Therefore, women with BRCA1 mutations should ideally have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed by the age of 35, while women with BRCA2 mutations can safely wait until age 40.”
There are, of course, downsides to having the ovaries removed. What women find most troubling is the immediate end of childbearing and the early entrance into menopause.
“There are both medical and quality of life downsides from the early menopause,” Swisher said. “I would recommend that women take estrogen unless they have previously had breast cancer.”
‘It’s a very personal decision’
The decision is one that each individual woman has to make with her doctor, said Dr. Larissa Korde, director of the Prevention Center at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Women considering this have to look at a couple of different things: the risk of ovarian cancer and how an oophorectomy affects breast cancer risk versus how early menopause affects general health,” Korde said. “You have to consider the side effects [of early menopause] like hot flashes and vaginal dryness, and the effects on bone health and cardiovascular health.”
Earlier oophorectomy might allow some women to keep their breasts.
“If you have your ovaries out there’s a significant protective effect against breast cancer,” Korde said. “If women have not had breast cancer and their ovaries have been removed we often prescribe short term hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer screening. That’s an option some women opt for.”
Ultimately Korde said, “it’s a very personal decision. Women have to deal with what their feelings are, what they’re afraid of, what risks they’re willing to take on and what side effects they’re willing to live with.”