Every year, one million women around the world are found to have breast cancer. Almost two hundred thousand others are told they have ovarian cancer.
Thhe decisions for treatment are more difficult when the women have abnormal versions of two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. The mutations in these genes can increase the risk for other kinds of cancer, including cancer of the cervix, uterus and pancreas.
SANDRA COHEN: "It's kinds of like you are sitting on a time bomb waiting for cancer to occur, and it really does a number on you mentally to deal with that every single day."
Sandra Cohen has never had breast cancer or ovarian cancer. But she has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. So she decided to have doctors remove her breasts and ovaries. She made the decision after her mother and grandmother both died from the same kind of cancers.
Doctors have known for several years that preventative surgery reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer for women with the mutations. But a new study also shows that these operations help those patients live longer.
The four-year study involved about two thousand five hundred women with the genetic mutations.
One of the researchers was Doctor Susan Domchek at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
SUSAN DOMCHECK: "Women who had their ovaries removed had a decrease in the risk of breast cancer, a decrease in the risk of ovarian cancer and, in addition, they were less likely to die of breast cancer, less likely to die of ovarian cancer and also had an improvement in their overall survival."
The study found that none of the women who had preventative breast removal developed breast cancer. Seven percent later did among those who decided against the surgery.
The rate of breast cancer was also seven percent among women who did not have their ovaries removed. Among those who did, the breast cancer rate was one percent.
The study also found that the women who had ovarian removal lowered their risk of death from ovarian cancer by almost eighty percent. Their risk of death from breast cancer was fifty-six percent lower, says Doctor Susan Domchek.
SUSAN DOMCHEK: "Our conclusion is that removing the ovaries particularly is very beneficial to women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations."
The researchers say women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancers should get genetic testing. Sandra Cohen did.
SANDRA COHEN: "Do some research with a genetic counselor. Meet some other women who have gone through it. It really will empower you and give you strength to take some action."
The study appeared in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.