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Cancer Risk Paradox Intrigues Scientists

Thu., Nov. 7, 1996, midnight

Researchers who have been studying a gene that causes breast and ovarian cancer have stumbled on a surprise. They have found that increased risk of cancer may be accompanied by slower progress of the disease when a person actually gets cancer.

“It’s a phenomenal observation,” said Dr. Maurie Markman, an ovarian cancer specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “It’s counterintuitive.” The reason for the effect is unknown, although there are other hereditary forms of cancer that progress more slowly than similar non-hereditary cancer.

What the scientists have known for a while is that women who have a mutated version of a gene called BRCA1 (for breast cancer 1) have a 40 percent to 60 percent risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. What they found in recent research is that women with the mutation who do get ovarian cancer do better than women without the gene who get the same illness. The cancer could still be deadly, but patients with the mutated gene lived more than twice as long as similar women who did not have it.

The study is reported in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.

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