Ovarian Cancer: Risk Factors

Ovarian Cancer

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Risk Factors

Doctors do not know what causes most ovarian cancers. There is no way to predict whether a particular woman will get ovarian cancer. It is possible to develop ovarian cancer without being at high risk, and it is possible to be at high risk and not develop it. However, women who fall into the following groups may be more likely to develop ovarian cancer:

  • Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.
    • These genes are responsible for repairing damage to DNA, a routine process that occurs in all cells. When women inherit a genetic mutation, they are at higher risk for developing both breast and ovarian cancer. While the average American woman has a less than 2 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer, women with a BRCA mutation can have up to an approximate 40 percent risk of developing it. Genetic testing for these mutations is available. It is recommended that women be thoroughly counseled by a genetic counselor or other well-trained healthcare professional before having the test submitted so that they understand the implication for themselves and their families of the results. With this being said, most ovarian cancers are not hereditary.
    • BRCA1 stands for breast cancer type 1 susceptibility.
    • BRCA2 stands for breast cancer type 2 susceptibility.
  • Women with Lynch syndrome (an HNPCC genetic mutation). HNPCC stands for hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer. This type of genetic mutation is associated with a strong family history of cancer, especially uterine, colon or other gastrointestinal cancers.
  • Women who have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Women who have a personal history of breast cancer
  • Women who are on estrogen replacement therapy only (WITHOUT progesterone) for more than five years. Women who are on estrogen replacement therapy WITH progesterone are at lower risk.
  • Women who have had endometriosis
  • Women who went through pregnancy and childbirth later in life, rather than earlier
  • Women are at increased risk for ovarian cancer as they age
  • Women who are obese, especially those who have a BMI of 30 or greater
  • Women who have had gynecologic surgery. However, not all gynecologic surgeries are equally likely to increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.
    • If a woman has had a hysterectomy or her ovaries removed, her risk is reduced dramatically.
    • If a woman has had her tubes tied (a tubal ligation), her risk is also reduced.

Some things reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Taking birth control pills reduces a woman’s ovarian cancer risk, with about a 50 percent reduction in risk after five years of use. Having children and breastfeeding children also seem to reduce risk.

Photo courtesy of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Ohio