What You Need to Know About Your Ovarian Cancer Risk
By Randolph Deger, MD, Virtua Gynecologic Oncologist
Ovarian cancer is often called a “silent killer.” This is because it can develop with few or even no detectable symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage.
The ovaries, which produce eggs for reproduction, contain three different types of cells: epithelial, germ, and stromal. Most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors, making up 85 to 90% of ovarian cancers.
Your risk factors can determine how likely you are to develop ovarian cancer. Like risks for other diseases, some can be controlled, and others can’t. It’s important to know your risk factors so you can discuss them with their doctor and determine if you can lower your risk.
Age is the most common risk factor, as two-thirds of ovarian cancer cases occur in women ages 55 and older. Obesity (measured as a BMI greater than 30) also is a risk factor, as well as a prior uterine, colon, or breast cancer diagnosis.
Menopausal women considering estrogen replacement should 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.
There are many genes that can greatly increase your risk for ovarian cancer including, but not limited to, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Since there's no screening tool for ovarian cancer, knowing your family history is vital. 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 (the 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, consult a genetic counselor to find out if you have certain known genetic markers.
Reducing your risk
Women who have had a full-term pregnancy have a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. The risk declines further with more than one full-term pregnancy.
Birth control pills, while they can cause other side effects, may reduce ovarian cancer risk. Tubal ligation or hysterectomy also can reduce risk. But, having your fallopian tubes removed is becoming 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.
To make an appointment with a Virtua doctor, call 888-847-8823.
Updated January 14, 2022