What you need to know about your ovarian cancer risk

What You Need to Know About Your Ovarian Cancer Risk

Ovarian cancer is often called “the silent killer.” This is because it can develop with few or even no detectable symptoms until the disease has advanced.

The ovaries, which produce eggs for reproduction, contain 3 different types of cells: epithelial, germ, and stromal. Most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors, making up 85-90% of ovarian cancers.

Your risk factors can determine how likely you are to develop ovarian cancer. Like risks for other disease, some can be controlled, and others can’t. Virtua gynecologic oncologist Randolph Deger, MD, shares the risk factors to make women more aware so they can discuss them with their doctor and determine if they can lower their risk. 

Non-Genetic Risk

Age is the most common risk factor, as 2/3 of ovarian cancer cases occur in women age 55 and older. Obesity (BMI greater than 30) also is a risk factor, as well as a prior uterine, colon or breast cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Deger also advises menopausal women considering estrogen replacement to discuss it with their doctor. Some studies have shown an increased risk of ovarian cancer in women using estrogen replacement—although the association is controversial.

Genetic Risk

There are many genes that can greatly increase your risk for ovarian cancer including, but not limited to, BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Since there is no screening tool for ovarian cancer, Dr. Deger stresses the importance of knowing your family history. If you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) that had ovarian cancer, your risk increases to 1 in 20, from about 1 in 70 (risk for the general population). Furthermore, if a family member had a type of colon cancer called HNPCC (or Lynch syndrome), your risk increases to almost 1 in 10.

If you have reason for concern, Dr. Deger recommends consulting a genetic counselor to find out if you have certain known genetic markers.

Reducing Your Risk

According to cancer.gov, women who have had a full-term pregnancy have a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. The risk declines further with more full-term pregnancies.

The birth control pill, while it can cause other side effects, may reduce ovarian cancer risk. Tubal ligation or hysterectomy can also reduce risk. But, Dr. Deger says that having your fallopian tubes removed (instead of tied) may become the new standard of care as studies show that ovarian cancer may actually begin at the end of the fallopian tube.

As always, talk to your gynecologist or primary care physician about your risk factors and other concerns.

Updated March 22, 2017

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