BRCA and Cancer: Non-Surgical Ways Women Might Reduce Risk

Breastfeeding and birth control pills may reduce cancer risks in women with BRCA mutations

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Women who know they have certain BRCA gene mutations may consider surgery to remove their breasts or ovaries to lower their risk of developing deadly cancers. But there may be other less aggressive options that can reduce their risk.

Researchers have found that a woman's age when she has her first child, breastfeeding and not smoking may all be factors that reduce the risk for breast and ovarian cancer in women with BRCA gene mutations.

"If you have a BRCA mutation, ask your doctor how to reduce cancer risks."

This study was led by Timothy Rebbeck, PhD, of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Pennsylvania.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor-suppressing proteins. If a woman has inherited either gene in a mutated form, her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer is much higher than that of the average woman. 

Researchers are trying to find ways to decrease the risk that these women will develop cancer without having to resort to surgery.

In this study, Dr. Rebbeck and colleagues looked through PubMed and Web of Science databases for studies done until September 2013 and found 44 peer-reviewed studies that looked at different lifestyle factors that decreased cancer risks for women with either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutated gene.

These researchers found that in women who carried the BRCA1 mutated gene, breastfeeding and tubal ligation — a procedure that involves tying the woman’s fallopian tubes so she can no longer have children — lowered rates of ovarian cancer.

Women with the BRCA1 gene also had lower rates of breast cancer if they were 30 and older when they had their first child.

Women who had their first child at age 25 to 29 also had a lower rate of breast cancer compared to those who had their first child when younger than 25, the research showed.

Ovarian cancer rates were lower among women carrying either mutated gene who took birth control pills.

The research also suggested that women with the mutated BRCA2 gene were more likely to develop breast cancer if they also smoked.

Dr. Rebbeck and team noted that many of the studies they reviewed were small and showed varying risks.

These researchers pointed out that many women do not know that they carry BRCA mutations until they actually have cancer or have been referred because of a family history of cancer. Women are not commonly genetically tested to see if they carry these genes because of the high costs involved, the researchers noted.

While use of birth control pills was tied to lower rates of ovarian cancer, some studies suggested it also increased rates of breast cancer, the authors wrote. They suggested that women discuss these issues with their doctors when deciding whether or not to take birth control.

In a press release, Dr. Rebbeck said, “Our analysis reveals that heredity is not destiny, and that working with their physicians and counselors, women with BRCA mutations can take proactive steps that may reduce their risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.”

However, much more research is required, the authors noted.

This study was published May 13 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 15, 2014
Last Updated:
May 15, 2014