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Are You at Risk for Ovarian Cancer?

Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian CancerOvarian cancer is not the most common cancer in women, but it’s one of the most deadly. The reason ovarian cancer tops the list of most lethal cancers is because it’s usually not diagnosed until it has spread outside the ovaries where it can’t be easily treated. The key to conquering this form of cancer is for women to know their risk factors and see their gynecologist yearly for a check-up. What are the most common risk factors for ovarian cancer?

Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer

Some women are genetically predisposed to breast cancer, because they inherited one of two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Having one of these two genes increases the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer in women. A woman with BRCA1 or BRCA2 has a lifetime risk for getting ovarian cancer as high as 40%. This is why women who have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, especially if the cancer occurred prior to menopause, should talk to their doctor about testing for these genes. If they test positive, some women may elect to remove their ovaries once they’ve finished childbearing.

Other Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors

Genetics can certainly increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer, but other factors can too. Anything that increases the number of times a woman ovulates over a lifetime raises the risk of ovarian cancer. This is why using oral contraceptives, having multiple pregnancies and breastfeeding lowers ovarian cancer risk. Each month a woman breastfeeds after a pregnancy reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by as much as 2%.

As might be expected, women who don’t get pregnant or take birth control pills have a higher risk of ovarian cancer – and so do women with a history of endometriosis. Lifestyle factors play a role too. Women who use talc powder in their genital area are at greater risk, probably because the talc causes low-grade inflammation. There are other possible risk factors that are still unproven including vitamin D deficiency and eating a diet deficient in antioxidants like those found in fruits and vegetables.

Hormones also increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Women who use estrogen without progesterone after menopause for five or more years have a greater risk of ovarian cancer compared to women who don’t use hormonal therapy – and women who take fertility drugs for longer than a year, particularly those who don’t became pregnant while taking them are at higher risk according to some studies.

Reducing the Risk for Ovarian Cancer: What Can You Do?

Know your family history and talk to your doctor about BRCA gene testing if you have a family history of ovary and breast cancer. Breastfeed your children after pregnancy since this can reduce the risk of getting this deadly disease. Eat a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables – and make sure your vitamin D level is adequate. Don’t use hormonal therapy after menopause unless the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, and avoid using powder containing talc. Most importantly, get regular gynecologic exams, especially after menopause. It could save your life.

Dr. Kristie

Menopausal Medicine. Volume 19, Number 1. February 2011.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.

This article is intended to convey general educational information and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

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One comment

  1. Emily Hunt

    Thanks Dr. Kristie!
    My mom is currently in remission after battling stage 3 Ovarian Cancer, and my maternal aunt has fought Breast Cancer 4 times. I spoke with my doctors about testing for the gene. My gynocologist suggested against it because 1. Insurance didn’t cover it and 2. With my history of Endometriosis it’s very probably that I do carry the gene.
    Later I spoke with my GP who said that just because I have Endometriosis, it doesn’t mean that I am going to have cancer. I asked her about the gene testing, and she made a very good point. “What difference will it make?” I thought about this, and she was right. If I tested positive, it doesn’t mean that I WILL get cancer. It only means that I have a gene. It may not even be a dominant gene- I have genes that would make me blond and blue eyed, but my auburn hair and brown eye gene is the dominant one. Why have a black cloud hanging over me? And, if I tested negative, it doesn’t mean that I am not going to get cancer.
    My GP taught me to look at my Endometriosis and family history as blessings- I don’t have any SuperWoman complex and I have to get checked out regularly because of these things.
    The most important thing that I can do for myself is to avoid any further risk factors, like the ones that you mentioned in your article, and to keep being proactive in my check ups, especially for early detection. I may require surgeries for my Endometriosis, but this gives my doctors a chance to actually see inside and look at my ovaries for any signs of cancer. So far, so good.
    Again, I thank you especially for all of the general health tips for women who may or may not have the BRCA genes.

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