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BRCA Gene Mutations Put Women At Greater Risk for Ovarian Cancer But Also Increase Chances of Survival (Dateline May 5, 2000)

Women who have genetic mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer and breast cancer. However, a new study published in the May 3, 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that women with BRCA gene mutations may have higher chances of surviving ovarian cancer than women who develop the disease sporadically (nonhereditary).  The researchers suggest that women with BRCA mutations may respond better to chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

In the study, researchers restricted their analysis to Jewish patients because certain BRCA gene mutations are more common among women of eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews).  Of the 189 Jewish patients treated for ovarian cancer during a 12-month period, 88 were found have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.  The other 101 patients were found to have developed ovarian cancer sporadically.  The tumor sizes were similar, and each woman received similar treatment for her cancer.

The results of the study showed that women with advanced ovarian cancer and BRCA gene mutations survived longer after initial treatment than the cancer patients who did not have BRCA gene mutations.  Women with BRCA gene mutations also had a longer cancer-free period after chemotherapy than women without BRCA gene mutations (average of 14 months compared with 7 months).

The researchers also found that women with BRCA mutations did not typically develop ovarian cancer until almost 60 years of age or older.   Women with BRCA1 gene mutations were an average of eight years younger than women with BRCA2 mutations at the time of ovarian cancer diagnosis.  Interestingly, women with BRCA gene mutations rarely developed ovarian cancer until after age 40.  Jeff Boyd, PhD, lead author of the study said these findings are hopeful for young women considering having their ovaries removed to reduce their chances of ovarian cancer.  Fertility may be preserved for a substantial period of time during young adulthood, said Dr. Boyd.

Though the study is preliminary, Boyd and his colleagues believe the results provide a glimpse of understanding into hereditary cancers.  If researchers can understand how hereditary cancers respond differently to treatments, they can use that information to improve treatments of both hereditary and non-hereditary types of cancer, according to Dr. Boyd. 

It is estimated that one in 55 women will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime (one in eight women will develop breast cancer).  Approximately 25,500 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed each year, and an estimated 14,500 women die from the disease each year.  Often, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are “silent,” making it difficult to diagnose the cancer until it has progressed into advanced stages.

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