A cancer risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease like ovarian cancer. The presence of risk factors, however, does not guarantee that you’ll develop cancer – ovarian or any other type – during your lifetime. For instance, some women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer have no known risk factors, while others who do have high-risk factors won’t get ovarian cancer at all. With that said, it is important to be aware of the factors that could increase your risk of ovarian cancer and what you can do to help lower your risks of developing ovarian cancer.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer. While most of these risk factors can’t be controlled there are certain factors, such as personal lifestyle choices, that can be changed.
Common risk factors for ovarian cancer can include:
- Age - An ovarian cancer diagnosis is very rare in women under the age of 40. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause.
- Obesity - Studies show that obese women have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Family history - Women who have a first-degree relative (grandmother, mother, daughter, or sister) with ovarian cancer are at an increased risk for ovarian cancer because of inherited genetic mutations. Abnormalities in certain genes, specifically BRCA1 or BRCA2, or one associated with Lynch syndrome, can increase the risk of ovarian cancer. About 5 to 10% of ovarian cancers are a part of family cancer syndromes resulting from inherited changes (mutations) in certain genes. Click here to read more about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
- Birth control - Using oral contraceptives or birth control pills for a minimum of 3 to 6 months can lower the risk of ovarian cancer. The risk continues to lower the longer the pills are used. With that said, the use of oral contraceptives can increase your risk for some other health issues, including cervical and breast cancer.
- Reproductive history - Women who had full-term pregnancies, before the age of 26, are at a lower risk than women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 35. Women who have never carried a pregnancy to term are also at a higher risk. Each full-term pregnancy lowers your risk. It is suggested that breastfeeding may also lower the risk as well.
- Smoking - Smoking doesn’t increase the risk for all types of ovarian cancer, but it has been linked to an increased risk for the mucinous type that is present in ovarian cancer.
- Hormone replacement therapy - Recent studies suggest that women who use estrogens after menopause are at an increased risk.
Reducing Your Risks of Developing Ovarian Cancer
Cancer prevention is an action taken to reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancer. While there is no guarantee you won’t get ovarian cancer, there are steps you can take to help reduce any risk factors that can be avoided.
Different prevention methods may include:
- Eating healthier and exercising more
- Avoiding things known to cause cancer, such as smoking and talcum powder
- Getting pregnant and breastfeeding after giving birth
- Taking oral contraceptives
- Undergoing genetic testing if any of your first-degree relatives (grandmother, mother, daughter; sister) have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer
- Having gynecological surgery such as tubal ligation or hysterectomy
Keep in mind that genetic testing and preventive gynecological surgery (called prophylactic BSO) are only recommended for patients who have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer. The decision to undergo either comes down to a personal choice only you can make. Speaking with an Arizona Oncology cancer specialist and meeting with a genetic counselor can help answer any questions you have and determine if you would be a good candidate for genetic testing or surgery.