Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors: Raising Awareness of the Most Critical Factors

June 5, 2024

Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors: Raising Awareness of the Most Critical Factors

Ovarian cancer risk factors are a serious concern for women of all ages, and understanding them is crucial for early detection and prevention. 

  • According to the American Cancer Society, only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

While learning about cancer can be daunting, being informed empowers us to take control of our health and make decisions that can help with early detection and prevention. 

Most Critical Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors

Some risk factors, like age and family history, are beyond our control, but others, such as lifestyle choices and reproductive history, are within our influence. By exploring the most critical ovarian cancer risk factors together, we can arm ourselves with the knowledge needed to assess our individual risk and take proactive steps to protect our well-being.

Remember, you’re not alone in this. Countless women are navigating the same concerns, and there’s power in understanding and supporting one another.

Age: A Significant Risk Factor

One of the most significant risk factors for ovarian cancer is age. The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as women get older, with the majority of cases occurring in women over the age of 50. However, it is essential to note that ovarian cancer can affect women of all ages, and being aware of other risk factors can help in assessing individual risk.

In particular, low-grade serous ovarian cancer (LGSOC) and borderline ovarian tumors (BOTs) — two types of ovarian neoplasms that are distinct from the more common high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) — tend to occur in younger women. The median age at diagnosis for LGSOC is typically between 45 and 57 years old, and the median age at diagnosis for BOTs is around 45-50 years old. Because of gender-based medical gaslighting and lack of education, symptoms are often overlooked until it’s too late. 

This is why here at Not These Ovaries, we’re working to quickly fund ovarian cancer research and trials — starting with the rarer and riskier borderline and low-grade serous types. Research into the relationship between age and risk for LGSOC and BOTs will help us understand disease etiology and improve early detection. 

With these two subtypes occurring in younger women (and with BOTs having the lowest median age at diagnosis), healthcare providers can tailor screening and early detection efforts to these populations. This is particularly important given that ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, which contributes to poor outcomes.

Family History and Genetic Predisposition

Family history and genetic predisposition play a crucial role in determining the risk of ovarian cancer. Women with a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) who has had ovarian cancer are at a higher risk of developing the disease themselves.

However, it’s important not to let this knowledge paralyze you with fear. While being aware of your family history is crucial, it’s equally essential to focus on taking proactive steps to monitor your health and reduce your risk where possible. 

Hereditary ovarian cancer syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, also significantly increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Genetic testing can help identify these risk factors and guide preventive measures.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a family history of ovarian cancer, it doesn’t mean you should dismiss any symptoms you may be experiencing. Trust your body and instincts, and don’t hesitate to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider.

Reproductive History and Lifestyle-Related Factors

A woman’s reproductive history can also influence her risk of developing ovarian cancer. Factors such as early menarche (onset of menstruation) and late menopause can increase the risk, as they result in a more extended exposure to estrogen

Nulliparity, or never having been pregnant, is another risk factor for ovarian cancer. Some studies suggest that fertility treatments may also increase the risk, although more research is needed in this area. 

Certain lifestyle factors can also contribute to an increased risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Obesity, particularly in postmenopausal women
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause, especially estrogen-only HRT
  • Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption

Other potential risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • Endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus 
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the reproductive organs 

While many risk factors for ovarian cancer have been identified, it’s important to recognize that the medical community is still working to fully understand their impact. Lack of research, along with convoluted, conflicting, and non-actionable information from various institutions can be confusing and overwhelming for women trying to assess their own risk. For example, while talcum powder use has been associated with ovarian cancer, there are no studies that prove there is a link between talcum powder and cancer. 

We understand that for any woman, learning about potential risk factors can be daunting, but it’s good to channel these concerns into positive action. Empower yourself by staying informed, listening to your body, and maintaining an open dialogue with your healthcare provider about any changes or symptoms you experience. 

Remember, early detection is key, and by being proactive and advocating for your health, you’re taking a vital step in protecting your well-being.

Lowering Your Risk: Protective Factors Against Ovarian Cancer

While some risk factors for ovarian cancer cannot be changed, there are protective factors that can help lower the risk. The use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, with the risk decreasing further with longer duration of use. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also have a protective effect against ovarian cancer. Additionally, tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) and hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) can lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

The Importance of Regular Screenings and Early Detection

Early detection of ovarian cancer is crucial for successful treatment and improved outcomes. However, unlike other gynecological cancers, there is currently no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer in the general population.

This makes it all the more important for women to be aware of their risk factors and to discuss any concerns with their healthcare provider. As you assess your own risk factors, remember to ask key ovarian cancer questions to better understand your situation. 

Keep in mind that current guidelines recommend that women at average risk do not undergo routine screening. However, women at high risk (such as those with a strong family history or those with certain genetic mutations) may benefit from regular screening or risk-reducing surgery. 

Be aware of your symptoms, too. These can include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary urgency or frequency. If these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, consult with your healthcare provider or a gynecological oncologist. 

We cannot overemphasize the importance of continued research to develop better screening methods, early detection techniques, and treatments for ovarian cancer. At Not These Ovaries, we are committed to helping fund clinical trials and support frontline researchers, and we encourage all women to support ovarian cancer research through donations, participation in clinical trials, or advocacy efforts.

Taking Action: Your Next Steps 

Armed with knowledge about the most critical ovarian cancer risk factors, you can take proactive steps to protect your health. Assess your personal risk factors, make lifestyle changes where possible, and prioritize regular check-ups with your healthcare provider. 

If you have any concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us as we support women in the fight against ovarian cancer.