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Ovary removal can cut risk of cancer in young women who carry BRCA gene

Rendering of the BRCA1 gene
Rendering of the BRCA1 geneWikipedia Commons author EMW

ABC News reported today, February 24, 2014, that healthy young women who are carriers of the two faulty BRCA genes can lower their cancer risk by having their ovaries surgically removed. Women who inherit either of the genes are at a much higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers and at an earlier age than the general population.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Toronto and published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, is the largest to date that shows the correlation between ovary removal and a decreased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. It involved 5,787 women from the United States, Canada and Europe who were carriers of the BRCA genes. Their health was tracked for a period of five and one half years. It was found that 186 developed ovarian, fallopian tube or peritoneal cancers during that time. It was also discovered that a bilateral oophorectomy (removal of both ovaries) resulted in a decrease of 80% in the development of those cancers. The procedure also reduces the risk of developing breast cancer, increases the survival rate if a woman has already developed breast cancer and can reduce the risk of death before age 70 even in non BRCA carrying women.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 1.4% of women will develop ovarian cancer during their lifetime. That figure jumps to 11-17% of women who carry the BRCA2 gene and 39% of women who carry the BRCA1 gene. Choosing a preventative oophorectomy is one of the most protective steps a woman can take in safeguarding herself. It is advised that women with the BRCA1 gene choose to have the surgery as young as age 35 as the risk of developing ovarian quickly climbs from 1.5% at that age to 4% at age 40 then 14% at age 50. Women with the BRCA2 gene are able to delay the surgery into their early 40's as the risk is not as severe.

Ovarian cancer is often difficult to diagnose, so women are urged to keep a close eye out for the following symptoms:

  • fatigue
  • getting full quickly while eating
  • abdominal swelling
  • clothes suddenly not fitting
  • leg swelling
  • changes in bowel habits
  • changes in bladder habits
  • abdominal pain
  • shortness of breath

While these symptoms may seem vague, they should never be taken lightly. Early detection is key to surviving ovarian cancer.