Understanding Your Risk and What You Can Do About It
How ovarian cancer begins is not clear. The monthly release of an egg could cause enough wear and tear to provoke genetic errors, or an increase in hormone levels around ovulation could encourage the abnormal cells to grow. In any case, it can start silently, and the hallmark symptoms of ovarian cancer — bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full and urinary urgency — can first appear after the cancer has already advanced.
What is clear is certain biological and lifestyle factors can raise your risk of ovarian cancer — sometimes by quite a lot. The more you know about what increases your risk of developing this disease, the better you can protect your body and sidestep a grim prognosis.
Most Important Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
Risk factors don’t mean you’re destined to develop cancer. In many cases, your risk is only elevated slightly, and in others, biological factors often need to pair with environmental factors to trigger a problem.
However, experts have pinpointed several possible precursors to ovarian cancer that you should be aware of.
As with most cancers, ovarian cancer tends to occur later in life. Although women of any age could develop it, this cancer is most commonly diagnosed after the age of 50.
Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause. It’s rare to be diagnosed before the age of 40, and according to the American Cancer Society, the majority of cases are found after age 63.
Some women are born with a predisposition to ovarian cancer. If any first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your own risk is three times higher than average.
Breast cancers and ovarian cancers can run together in families, so it’s important to discuss your whole family history with your doctor.
Researchers have also uncovered certain faulty genes that raise your risk of ovarian cancer. Whether or not you develop breast cancer, the inherited gene mutation of breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) or breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2) will raise your ovarian cancer risk. These genetic mutations account for 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers.
These other genetic disorders have also been linked to ovarian cancer:
- Cowden disease
- Lynch syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS)
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer
Early Puberty and Late Menopause
When you begin menstruation and menopause will also play a role in your ovarian cancer risk. If you got your first period earlier than average (before the age of 12) you’re at a greater risk of developing ovarian cancer later in life. Likewise, if you go through menopause after the age of 52, your risk will be higher.
Reproductive and Birth Control History
If and when you become pregnant plays a role in your ovarian cancer risk. So do the methods you’ve used to avoid pregnancy over the years.
You are at a greater risk of developing ovarian cancer if you:
- Have never been pregnant
- Had your first child over the age of 30
- Have unexplained infertility
- Use an intrauterine device (IUD)
Not all contraceptive devices are problematic. In fact, taking the birth control pill for more than a few months appears to lower your risk of ovarian cancer for many years.
Women who use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) through menopause may be at an increased risk of ovarian cancer. However, it appears that estrogen-only HRT is worse; less is known about the effects of the progesterone-estrogen variety. The risk is highest in women who use HRT for five years or more.
While ovarian cancer risk can often be traced to biological factors, your habits and lifestyle choices can influence your chances, as well.
Next page: what you can do to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.