Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States and ovarian cancer is the 5th most common cancer in women. In 2022, almost 20,000 Americans were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Like lung cancer, ovarian cancer rates in the U.S. have fallen in recent years, but it has not been eradicated. What are the main causes and risk factors for ovarian cancer and how do you prevent it?
1. Older Age
The simple truth is that the older you are, the more likely you’ll be diagnosed with a number of cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer. In the case of ovarian cancer, over half of all women diagnosed are over 63 years old.
While age can’t be controlled, body weight can be. According to the National Cancer Society, women who have a BMI of 30 or above are more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. What’s more, obesity may reduce the likelihood of surviving.
Another avoidable risk factor, smoking, is the cause of 9-36% of all cancer deaths in America, depending on location. While it is not linked to an increase in ovarian cancer diagnosis rates as a whole, it does increase risk for the mucinous type of cancer.
4. Family History of Ovarian, Breast or Colorectal Cancer
As with many cancers, family history plays an important role in ovarian cancer risk levels. Women are more likely to be diagnosed if someone in their family has been diagnosed with either ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer. Risk increases even more if those relative are close or if there’s more than one relative. In a 2018 study that analyzed over 10,000 ovarian cancer patients, women were 2.4 times more likely to be diagnosed if their mother was diagnosed but 10.4 times more likely if a sister was also diagnosed.
5. Family Cancer Syndrome
Some families have more than just a history of cancer. They have what’s called Family Cancer Syndrome. 25% of all ovarian cancer cases can be attributed to this set of genetic conditions that include hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (HBOC), hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, and MUTYH-associated polyposis.
If you or anyone in your family has had a genetic test and know they have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, your family likely has Family Cancer Syndrome. According to the CDC, BRCA gene mutation, by itself, is responsible for 10% of all ovarian cancer diagnoses.
6. Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Of all cancer types, ovarian cancer is most closely linked to breast cancer. If you have had a personal diagnosis of breast cancer in the past, you have a 30% higher chance of also being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. If you’re over 50, you’ll have almost two times the risk. This risk is further elevated if your family has either a history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer or they have Family Cancer Syndrome.
7. Later or No Pregnancy
Women who have never been pregnant to full-term or who do not become pregnant until after the age of 35 have a higher rate of ovarian cancer.
8. Fertility Treatment (IVF)
While not as clear, studies suggest that treatment with in vitro fertilization (IVF) increases the risk of developing less invasive types of ovarian tumors, called “low malignant potential” or “borderline” tumors.
9. Post-Menopausal Hormone Therapy
Not to be confused with hormone therapy used to treat cancer, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is used to treat menopause symptoms. According to one 2019 pooled study of over 4 million participants, HRT increased risk of an ovarian cancer diagnosis by 29%.
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10. Not Breastfeeding
While we may not all have the opportunity to breastfeed, if you do, take it! Compared to women who have never breastfed, mothers who breastfeed have a 24% lower risk of invasive ovarian cancer, according to a 2020 pooled analysis of over 13,000 cases. Women who fed longer and more recently were also shown to have a further decrease in risk.
How To Take Action
Unlike other female cancers like cervical cancer and breast cancer that have screening tests—the pap smear and mammogram—ovarian cancer cannot be screened for, only diagnosed. If you don’t feel right, trust your gut and speak with your primary care doctor or gynecologist, who can sift through your symptoms.
Ovarian cancer is not as easy to prevent as other cancers. For risk factors you can control, be in charge of yourself! Exercise and eat a healthy diet to maintain a normal weight. If possible, breast feed and avoid fertility and hormone treatments. If you suspect Family Cancer Syndrome, speak to your doctor about genetic testing, preventative surgery, and oral birth control treatment.
If you have questions or just need a friendly ear, consider contacting us for individual support or joining our monthly group cancer survivorship sessions. We are a Queens-based non-profit and our services are free of charge. Our mission is to support the caregivers, patients, and our cancer survivor neighbors in the greater-NYC community.
- “Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors,” American Cancer Society
- “Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer,” American Cancer Society
- “Risk of Dying From Cancer Continues to Drop at An Accelerated Pace,” American Cancer Society
- “What Should I Know About Screening?” Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)
- “Familial risks of ovarian cancer by age at diagnosis, proband type and histology,” PLOS One, 2018
- “Does Breast or Ovarian Cancer Run in Your Family?” Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)
- “Breast Cancer Survivors at Increased Risk for Ovarian Cancer,” Oncology, 1999
- “Menopausal Hormone Replacement Therapy and the Risk of Ovarian Cancer: A Meta-Analysis,” Frontiers in Endocrinology, 2019