The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown.
Ovarian cancer occurs more often in women living in developed countries, but there are probably many different contributing factors.
There can be a genetic factor to ovarian cancer. Women who have two or more close relatives (mother, sister or daughter) with ovarian cancer are more at risk of the disease. The risk is higher if the relative was under 50 when they were diagnosed with the cancer.
Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?
The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as you age—6 out of 10 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are between 50 to 79 years old.
The risk for ovarian cancer may be increased if you::
- have had breast or colon cancer
- have not had children
- have not used oral contraceptives
- have a family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer
- are a lesbian woman who may not have used oral contraceptives and/or chosen not to bear children, which both increase risk
- are a member of the Ashkenazi Jewish community.
If you have any concerns, make sure you discuss them with your physician.
Reducing Your Risk For Ovarian Cancer
To date there is no widely available method for preventing ovarian cancer. Some studies indicate that women may reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer by:
- Taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills) for more than 5 years
- A one-term pregnancy (carrying the fetus for at least 37 weeks)
- Breast feeding
- Tubal ligation or surgery to block the fallopian tube to prevent pregnancy
- Having both fallopian tubes removed. If you are having gynecologic surgery, ask your doctor whether or not removal of the fallopian tubes would be beneficial to you. Recent research has found that a large proportion of ovarian cancers actually start in the fallopian tubes rather than the ovaries.
- Having both ovaries removed, or bilateral oophorectomy, may reduce the risk considerably; oophorectomy is generally reserved for those who have undergone genetic counseling and genetic testing
Removal of the ovaries may be an effective prevention of ovarian cancer for:
- Women with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, or
- Women with the presence of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
Once the ovaries are removed, a woman no longer produces estrogen bringing on surgical menopause and may need long-term hormone replacement. In addition, there are other risks associated with early menopause.
Women with a positive family history and a familial tendency for ovarian cancer should be counseled in their early 20s by a gynecologic oncologist or geneticist about their risk, with clinical follow up and possibly preventive surgery.