Risk Factors of Ovarian Cancer

There are several risk factors which are clearly associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Family History: This is by far the biggest risk factor for developing the disease. For women who have had a family member with ovarian cancer, it’s important to determine if they may have a specific genetic mutation which greatly increases the risk of developing not only ovarian cancer, but breast, colon, and other types of cancers as well. Women with a first or second degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer before the age of 50, or women with multiple family members diagnosed with ovarian or related cancers, should be considered at risk for hereditary cancer syndromes. The most common hereditary syndrome is a BRCA mutation. Approximately 10-15% of women with ovarian cancer have this mutation. Women with a BRCA mutation have a 25-50% risk of developing ovarian cancer in their lifetime4.

Hormonal Factors: Several circumstances leading to greater occurrence of ovulation and raised hormone levels have been associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. These are:

  • women who begin menstruating before the age of 12
  • women who experience menopause after the age of 50
  • infertility
  • never having been pregnant
  • polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Endometriosis
  • Postmenopausal estrogen therapy

Environmental Factors: Obesity and cigarette smoking have been clearly associated with an increased risk of the development of ovarian cancer. In contrast, specific dietary recommendations and exercise have not shown a significant impact on risk.

Several protective factors have been identified which decrease the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Of these the most notable is the use of oral contraceptive pills. The longer a woman takes this form of birth control, the greater the reduction in risk of developing ovarian cancer. Other factors that have been shown to decrease risk are:

  • multiple pregnancies
  • tubal ligation
  • breast feeding
  • progesterone