Preventive surgery can cut risk of breast cancer by 90%

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Women who inherit a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer face a hard choice over whether to have preventive surgery, after research showed it could cut risk of the disease by 90 per cent.

Women who inherit a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer face a hard choice over whether to have preventive surgery, after research showed it could cut risk of the disease by 90 per cent.

The findings, in today's Lancet, relate to women with a defective version of the breast cancer gene BRCA1. About one in 800 of the population carries the defective gene, detectable by screening, and affected women have up to an 85 per cent risk of breast cancer. The presence of the defective gene also increases the risk of ovarian cancer to 60 per cent.

Researchers from Queen's University, Belfast, found standard cancer prevention techniques, such as screening and drug treatments, did not offer the same chance of survival as surgery for this group. Dr Paul Harkin, who led the research, said: "Surgery to remove a woman's breasts and ovaries may seem drastic, but the women in these studies are at a very high risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

"The choice lies with the women ... Some women decide to undergo surgery because it gives them peace of mind. Others prefer to watch and wait. Either way it can be a traumatic experience and it is vital that women receive the best possible counselling."

Tracy Barraclough, 42, a church worker with a seven-year-old son in Leeds, opted for a double mastectomy and hysterectomy when she was 38 after finding she had the defective gene. Her mother, grandmother and great grandmother had breast cancer and her mother "suffered dreadfully", she said. "I wasn't prepared to wait for the inevitable." Her sexuality had been unaffected, she said. "I feel more of a woman than I did before."

Alexis Haines, 49, from London, is awaiting surgery. She and two of her three sisters have the defective gene. "We live in a society that accepts breast implants for movie stars and singers so there is no shame in a woman with cancer having the surgery."

The lead author of the Lancet report, Dr Richard Kennedy, said the figures for survival were unequivocally in favour of surgery. "There is a choice between regular screening and surgery," he said.

At a press conference to launch the findings organised by Cancer Research UK yesterday, the researchers said results were preliminary and the risks were uncertain. More studies were needed, they said.

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