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Many women at risk of breast and ovarian cancer elect to have prevention surgery

By Rachel Stockton (rachels@foodconsumer.org)

According to a British survey, many women who have the gene mutations responsible for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer elect to have risk prevention surgery. The University Hospital of South Manchester of NHS Trust revealed that of those who have the surgery, 40% have both breasts removed and 45% have both ovaries removed.

Of the 200 women studied, all had undergone genetic counseling to find out if they had the BRCA mutations. Some elected to have the surgery soon after counseling while others waited up to 7 years to take action.

According to the American Association of Clinical Chemistry, only 1 in 800 women will have 1 or both of the mutations; thus, only women with a heavy family history of breast and ovarian cancers are encouraged to have the testing performed, especially if the female relative is a parent or sibling.

Even with testing, however, there is no sure way to tell whether or not a woman who has the mutations will develop cancer. The CDC states that 36%-85% of women with the mutations will develop breast cancer, while 16%-60% will develop ovarian cancer.

Additionally, just because a woman does not carry the mutations doesn't mean she will not develop cancer; it just means she won't develop the hereditary form of the disease. For every 1000 women who test negative for the mutations, between 12 and 45 of them will develop cancer by the age of 50.

Elective surgery is not the only way to eradicate risk; the American Association of Clinical Chemistry website states that other options include more frequent checkups and mammograms and taking medications that reduce risk (such as birth control pills and tamoxifen).

While risk prevention surgery is certainly the most radical form of prevention, for those who carry the dreaded mutations, the peace of mind accompanying the procedure is well worth it.