Grand Rounds: Hysterectomy sans oophorectomy: The case for leaving a woman's
If there's no cancer present, why remove a woman's ovaries during hysterectomy? Does
the reduced risk of ovarian cancer outweigh the consequences of eliminating the
protective hormones secreted by a healthy pair of ovaries? A team of researchers offers
some thought-provoking conclusions.
Jul 1, 2006
By: William H. Parker, MD, Michael S. Broder, MD, MPH, Jonathan S. Berek, MD,
Table 1. Annual incidence of ovarian cancer by age group
Gynecologists have long suggested that prophylactic oophorectomy is the best way to
decrease the rate of ovarian cancer.1 In fact, calculations suggest that routine
oophorectomy for women over 40 years old who are having a hysterectomy for benign
conditions would save about 1,000 US women per year from getting ovarian cancer.2
With the general acceptance of this notion, the percentage of hysterectomies
accompanied by bilateral oophorectomies more than doubled from 25% in 1965 to 55%
in 1999. Of the 600,000 hysterectomies performed yearly in the US, approximately
300,000 are accompanied by prophylactic bilateral oophorectomy.
Table 2. Number of women dying per year
Ovarian cancer is a difficult disease to manage because it's hard to diagnose before it
metastasizes, and late-stage disease is too often fatal. But excluding women from highrisk families—those with known BRCA1 or BRCA2 germ-line mutations, for
example—ovarian cancer is a relatively uncommon malignancy. At age 50, only about
one in 1,500 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and at age 70, the age of
peak incidence, only one in 400 will be found to have ovarian cancer (Table 1). In fact,
ovarian cancer is much less common than lung, colon, or breast cancer. Although about
15,000 women die of ovarian cancer every year, 68,000 die of lung cancer, 28,000 die
of colon cancer, and 42,000 die of breast cancer. And, significantly, 479,000 women die
of heart disease every year and about 48,000 women die within 1 year following hip
fracture (Table 2).
The cumulative lifetime mortality rate for women from ovarian cancer after
hysterectomy for benign disease is 0.47%, or fewer than one in 200. This is lower than
the often-stated lifetime risk of one in 70, a number that includes women with BRCA1
or BRCA2 mutations or other high-risk germ-line mutations.
Women are living longer, with an average life expectancy of 78 years, and long-term
health issues are important. When considering any potential benefits of removing a
patient's ovaries, one has to also consider the benefits of preserving them, which include
lower risks of osteoporotic fracture and coronary heart disease, as we'll discuss further
Despite these important health concerns, many women feel that they do not have
enough information about long-term risks and benefits to help them make a decision
regarding the prophylactic removal of ovaries when they are having a hysterectomy for
benign disease.3 A recent decision analysis for women with inherited BRCA1/2
mutations and at high risk for ovarian cancer (and breast cancer) found that prophylactic
oophorectomy was clearly beneficial after completion of childbearing.4 But a
recommendation for women with average risk of ovarian cancer has not been
The ideal way to study this issue would be with a prospective, randomized trial.
However, to be statistically valid and yield meaningful outcomes, such a study would
require 8,000 women randomized to oophorectomy or ovarian conservation and then
followed for 40 years. So it's unlikely that outcomes will ever be studied in this way.
Why preserve the postmenopausal ovary?
[Nevertheless, there's strong evidence that the risk of developing ovarian cancer after
hysterectomy performed for benign disease is 40% lower than expected based on its
prevalence in the general population.5-7 ] Because the reduction in risk of ovarian
cancer persists for 10 to 20 years after surgery, this effect is not the result of screening
bias. Theories to explain the decreased risk include blocking reflux of carcinogens, such
as endometrial tissue, human papilloma virus, or talc8,9 through the reproductive tract
to the ovaries, and destruction of reproductive-tract tissue during surgery with release of
antigens that cause the formation of antibodies (MUC1) to ovarian cancer cells.10
Premenopausal oophorectomy causes an immediate and significant loss of all ovarian
hormones. Following menopause, a normal ovary continues to produce androstenedione
and testosterone in significant amounts until age 80.11 These androgens are converted
in fat, muscle, and skin into estrone, the primary estrogen in postmenopausal women.
As you might expect, following oophorectomy, menopausal women have significantly
lower plasma levels of androstenedione and testosterone than naturally menopausal
Both estrogens and androgens inhibit bone resorption, and androgens increase bone
formation. Blood levels of testosterone and estradiol are correlated with hip fractures in
postmenopausal women.13,14 One study found that after 16 years of follow-up
(median), women who were postmenopausal at the time of oophorectomy had 54%
more osteoporotic fractures than women with intact ovaries.15 A prospective study
found women older than 60 had a twofold increase in mortality (OR 2.18; CI 2.03–2.32)
following low-trauma hip fractures.16
[Oophorectomy also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, the major cause of
death for women. Oophorectomy after age 50 increases risk of developing a first
myocardial infarction by 40%] (RR 1.4; CI 1.0–2.0) compared to controls.17 Other,
indirect findings support this conclusion. Data from the Women's Health Initiative
(WHI) showed that hysterectomy with oophorectomy is an independent predictor of
Framingham risk of myocardial infarction or coronary death.18 More severe coronary
atherosclerosis has been found at autopsy in women with prior bilateral
oophorectomy.19 And earlier menopause, either natural or surgical, is associated with
more sub-clinical atherosclerosis, and this finding has been related to the risk of clinical
Designing a study that compares benefits and risks
Weighing the benefits of ovarian hormones against the risk of ovarian cancer has been a
difficult task for women and their doctors. Usually, any long-term health benefits have
been overshadowed by the specter of ovarian cancer.
Figure 1. How a computer thinks about hysterectomy—with and without oophorectomy
To clarify the risks and benefits of oophorectomy, we used a Markov decision analytic
computer model that helps make complex medical decisions when there are uncertain
conditions.22 We first reviewed the medical literature and found studies that examined
the incidence of disease and mortality from five conditions that appear to be related to
ovarian hormones: coronary heart disease (CHD), ovarian cancer, breast cancer, stroke,
and hip fracture, as well as data for death from all other causes (Figure 1). We then
searched for data for the relative risk of developing these five conditions for women
having either oophorectomy or ovarian conservation between the ages of 40 and 75.
Next, we calculated risk estimates for these conditions for every 5-year interval until
women in our model either died or reached the age of 80. We deliberately chose to
measure mortality because good data for quantifying morbidity or quality of life are
Data for the incidence of and mortality in the general population from the five selected
conditions were derived from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER)
database and the National Center for Health Statistics.23,24 Data for all-cause mortality
for women (excluding our five specific conditions) were derived from the National Vital
Statistics Reports.25 The difference in surgical mortality following hysterectomy alone
and hysterectomy with oophorectomy was negligible and was omitted from the model.
The relative risks of dying from the five conditions following oophorectomy or ovarian
conservation was calculated from published studies. Hysterectomy alone has been
shown to reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer by an average of 46%.5-7 The
risk of ovarian cancer following bilateral oophorectomy is 0%. The risk of myocardial
infarction for women following oophorectomy up to age 55 is double the baseline risk
(RR = 2.2; CI 1.2–4.2). [For ages 55 to 65, the risk of CHD was found to decrease 6%
for each year oophorectomy is delayed after menopause.26 ] Since no applicable data
were found for women older than 65, the relative risk of MI for these women was
conservatively assumed to be 1.0.
Mortality rates for osteoporotic hip fractures in the general population were calculated
by multiplying annual incidence rates by the case-fatality rates.27 Women having
oophorectomy after age 49 have been shown to have a 50% increased risk of hip
fracture and, because we could not find any relevant studies for women aged 40 to 49,
we conservatively assumed that the RR was similar.15 Mortality rates in the general
population from stroke are known, but no studies have examined relative risk following
oophorectomy, and we assumed the risk to be equal in both groups. Women who had
oophorectomy prior to age 50 have a 50% reduction in breast cancer for 10 years
following surgery, but no reduction in risk has been found in women who had surgery
after the age of 50.28
The effects of estrogen therapy on the five conditions were based on the estrogen-only
arm of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI).29 WHI studies have not reported risks
based on presence or absence of ovaries, so we used the data equally for both groups of
women. However, the WHI found that ET use reduced hip fractures by 6 per 10,000
women-years, increased the risk of stroke 12 per 10,000 women-years and was
associated with no increased risk of breast cancer and these data were used in our
What our research revealed
[For women who have a hysterectomy with ovarian conservation at ages 50 to 54, for
example, and who are at average risk of ovarian cancer, coronary heart disease,
osteoporosis, breast cancer, and stroke, the probability of surviving to age 80 was
62.46% (without ET) compared to 53.88% if oophorectomy was also performed
(without ET)]. This 8.58% difference in survival is primarily due to fewer women dying
of CHD (15.95% vs. 7.57%) and hip fracture (4.96% vs. 3.38%), far outweighing the
0.47% mortality rate from ovarian cancer after simple hysterectomy for benign disease.
If surgery occurs at ages 55 to 59, the survival advantage is 3.92%. After age 64 there
was no significant difference in survival. A sensitivity analysis was performed by
varying the RR based on the range of data we found in the literature, and no analysis
showed that oophorectomy improved survival.
For a hypothetical group of 4,000 women ages 50 to 54 undergoing hysterectomy with
oophorectomy (assuming they don't receive estrogen therapy), our analysis predicts 343
excess deaths (largely from CHD). For the risk of ovarian cancer to outweigh the risks
of CHD and hip fracture following oophorectomy, CHD deaths would need to be less
than 5% of our estimates, or hip fracture mortality would need to be less than 70% of
our estimates. (While ET improves survival in oophorectomized women, it still doesn't
equal the survival rates found in women who retained their ovaries.)
Summing up the data
[Because ovarian cancer is a relatively uncommon cause of death and heart disease a
relatively common one, our data show that for women of average risk of ovarian cancer,
it's better to spare a woman's ovaries at the time of hysterectomy for benign disease.]
Although quality of life issues are of great importance to women, insufficient data were
available to include these in our model. For premenopausal women, and some who are
postmenopausal, oophorectomy may lead to the sudden onset of hot flushes and mood
disturbances if estrogen is not taken. Other problems may include a decline in wellbeing, a decline in cognitive functioning, poor sleep quality, depression, and a decline in
sexual desire and frequency.30
While estrogen therapy may reduce both risks and symptoms, many women
discontinued hormone therapy after the WHI and fewer now start hormones at the time
Studies also show that the number of patients still taking either statins or
bisphosphonates after 12 months is less than 20%. Therefore, any assumption that
medical treatment can ameliorate these conditions following oophorectomy is
Our research suggests that surgeons should be very cautious about performing
prophylactic oophorectomy in the majority of women who are at low risk of developing
ovarian cancer and who are under the age of 65. Clinical management guidelines
published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 1999
recommended that "the decision to perform prophylactic oophorectomy should be based
not only on the patient's age but also on other factors that weigh individual risk for
developing ovarian cancer against loss of ovarian function."32 Hopefully, our results
will encourage a dialogue between women and their doctors regarding the potential
risks that may result from oophorectomy and aid women who are considering ovarian
conservation or oophorectomy.
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