The early removal of ovaries can cut the chance of death from the BRCA genetic mutation by a significant margin, according to a recent report from the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The report says that if removal of the ovaries – an oophorectomy – is done prior to the age of 35, survival from cancer is improved.
The research project entailed work by the Toronto Women’s College Research Institute and involved some 5,800 women globally beginning in 1995 and ending in 2011. Women were, on average, studied for a period of 5.6 years in order to determine how successful the surgical removal of the ovaries was in preventing death from cancer. Patients who had either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations who also had the ovaries removed cut their risk of death by up to 77 percent over those who did not have the surgery. Ovarian cancer is often considered the “silent killer” because it is often symptom-free until the condition is highly advanced. Once it is advanced, many cases of ovarian cancer are thought to be fast moving.
Actress Angelina Jolie made headlines in 2013 with news that she carried the BRCA1 mutation and had a prophylactic double mastectomy in order to cut her risk of contracting cancer. She also announced plans that she would undergo the surgical removal of her ovaries at some point in the future to further reduce her risk of contracting cancer.
One of the earliest public faces of the disease in the 20th century is the late comedienne Gilda Radner, for whom Gilda’s Club is named. Because Radner’s cancer had progressed so far prior to diagnosis, she was unable to have any sort of surgery to save her life. She died in 1989 of the disease, and her husband, actor Gene Wilder, testified with Congress about what needed to be done to help those with ovarian cancer.
Generally, ovarian cancer can affect 1.2 percent of the female population. However, the study said that if women waited until age 40 to have an oophorectomy, their chances of getting ovarian, fallopian or peritoneal cancer jumped to 4 percent. If they waited until they were 50, their risk of getting any of these cancers soared to 14.2 percent.
However, the surgical removal of the ovaries also brings some health risks. Women who have their ovaries removed have increased risk of cardiovascular disease and of osteoporosis, in addition to the early onset of menopause. Study co-author Amy Finch from the Toronto Women’s College Research Institute noted that in order to appreciate the full impact removal of the ovaries could have before the age of 35, further research needed to be undertaken.
Dr. Steven Narod, MD, said one of the greatest challenges in the fight against ovarian and other cancers is that not everyone knows whether or not they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation. He believes it could benefit up to 1 out of 20 women to have the genetic testing done so that informed decisions about their health can be made. Dr. Jamie Bakkum-Gamez, a gynecological cancer surgeon who works at the May Clinic, says that the cancer risk prediction based on age and prophylactic oophorectomy done in the study is a useful tool for medical professionals as far as determining whether or not the patient should have the surgery.
By Christina St-Jean