Actress Angelina Jolie grabbed headlines last May when she revealed she had a preventive double mastectomy after tests showed she carried the BRCA1 cancer gene. Before that prophylactic measure, she'd faced an 87 percent chance of breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, the disease that claimed her mother in 2007. Removing her ovaries, preventively, could reduce that risk by 85 to 95 percent.
And now, for the first time ever, a new, large-scale study shows that women like Jolie who have their ovaries removed by age 35 can also dramatically reduce their risk of dying from cancer.
"This is great. This is really one of the first pieces of solid data, other than mathematical models that shows when we should be doing these preventative surgeries and the value of these surgeries," said Dr. Marie Wood from the Fletcher Allen Health Care Familial Cancer Program.
Wood stresses that each patient needs to weigh their risks and benefits individually and those with BRCA2 face a much lower risk of ovarian cancer than those with BRCA1.
Fletcher Allen's familial cancer program contributed data to the groundbreaking research. The study of 5,800 women showed that those with BRCA1 who had their ovaries removed by as early as age 35, lowered their chance of dying by 77 percent. The longer you wait, the greater your risk.
Nevertheless, the decision isn't an easy one for everyone.
"It's interesting because for some women the prophylactic mastectomy is the hardest decision. For other women, it's taking the ovaries out. And it's important that people realize not only the health benefits that we're now understanding, but also some of the health risks," said Dr. Wood.
Those risks involve women's bone health and heart health due to immediate surgical menopause. But doctors say this new study should now help women decide if and when to have their ovaries removed. It's a study that shows a substantial reduction in ovarian cancer risk, and death.
That research was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
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