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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Gene Test, Preventive Surgery Save Women's Lives

Preventive Surgery Cuts Death Risk for Women With BRCA Cancer Genes


"You can prevent a death from ovarian cancer by appropriate use of genetic testing and preventive surgery," Rebbeck tells WebMD. "That is a message that some women should get to save their lives."

The BRCA gene vastly increases a woman's cancer risk. Women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a 56% to 84% lifetime risk of breast cancer. Lifetime risk of ovarian cancer increases by 36% to 63% for women with BRCA1 and by 10% to 27% for those with BRCA2.

There's no surefire way to screen women for ovarian cancer. That means that by the time the cancer is found, it's often too late for a cure, says Virginia Kaklamani, MD, DSc, director of translational breast cancer research at the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.

"Any woman who is positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2 should consider RRSO," Kaklamani says. "Usually it's done at age 40 or when a woman is finished having children, as the risk of ovarian cancer increases at age 40 but not before that. But since there is no good screening for ovarian cancer, the only way to prevent it is to have the surgery."

What It's Like to Get a Positive BRCA Test Result

The BRCA mutations can be carried by either men or women. This means that a woman could be carrying the gene if a female relative on either her mother's or father's side of the family had breast cancer at an early age.

While the test itself is simple, explaining a positive result is complicated. Not every doctor is up to the task.

"It is really important to go to someone who knows what they are talking about," Rebbeck says. "These tests can be ordered by any clinician, but some do not have full knowledge of how these tests may work or what a woman's options may be. You really need to talk to someone who knows this business."

Grossman's experience is a case in point.

"The genetic counselor I went to gave me good information, but I think I was her first patient to test BRCA positive," Grossman says. "She didn't even have tissues with her. She didn't know what to do when I cried. And cussed."

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