Ovary Removal May Lower Inherited Risk of Breast Cancer
Nov. 16, 1999 (Indianapolis) -- A new study shows that women who have a high
risk for both breast and ovarian cancer -- based on their genetic makeup --
might reduce their risk of developing either form of cancer by having their
ovaries surgically removed. The research, published in a recent issue of the
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows that women who have
specific kinds of genetic changes (mutations) can reduce their risk of breast
cancer by 70% if they undergo oophorectomy -- the medical term for removal of
"We were interested in identifying ways to reduce cancer risk in women
with [genetic] mutations," researcher Timothy R. Rebbeck, PhD, tells WebMD.
"We studied the effect of ? surgical interventions, including the removal
of ovaries. The theory was [that] removal of hormones the ovaries make might
have an effect on breast cancer risk." Rebbeck is associate professor of
epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center.
Women who carry what are called "germline mutations" have a greatly
increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers compared to the general
population. Some of these women have chosen to have their ovaries and/or
breasts removed to reduce their cancer risk, even though medical research has
not conclusively shown that either surgery has this effect. In premenopausal
women, another possible benefit of surgical removal of the ovaries may be that
it lessens the women's bodies' exposure to ovarian hormones that may increase
the risk of breast cancer.
Rebbeck notes that women have been undergoing these surgeries for decades
without knowing if they've actually reduced their cancer risk. While most of
the oophorectomies are performed to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, the
study reported here is among the first to suggest that there might be an added
benefit: reducing breast cancer risk as well.
"We do not want this report to sound like a recommendation," says
Rebbeck. "Women who might be candidates for surgery should see their
physicians and genetic counselors to evaluate their risks. We are hoping that
this result will be another piece of information for them to consider."
James P. Evans, MD, director of the cancer genetics clinic at the University
of North Carolina, tells WebMD that women at high risk for inheriting breast
cancer have had limited choices for reducing their risk up to now.
"This will be helpful to guide women in making these decisions, because
it suggests that oophorectomy does indeed decrease the risk of breast
cancer," says Evans, who was not involved in the study. "This is of
some practical importance as well, because oophorectomy is a decision these
women face anyway, since they also run a higher risk for ovarian cancers. To
know that we have some data that suggest decreased breast cancer risk is