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Ovary Removal May Lower Inherited Risk of Breast Cancer

WebMD Health News

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 the ovaries.

"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 important."

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