Taking Charge: Who Gets Ovarian Cancer?
Scientists have found that certain risk factors increase a woman's chance of developing the most common type of ovarian cancer, epithelial ovarian carcinoma, although in most cases this increased risk is very small. Most ovarian cancer cannot be explained by any known risk factors. More research in this area is needed to help determine why some women develop the disease and others do not.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
Family History of Ovarian Cancer
If your mother, sister or daughter has had ovarian cancer, especially if they developed it at a young age, you are considered to have an increased risk of developing the disease yourself.
About 7 percent to 10 percent of ovarian cancers result from an inherited tendency to develop the disease. The same genetic abnormality that occurs in breast cancer (BRCA1, and to a lesser extent BRCA2) may also be found in ovarian cancers.
Most epithelial ovarian cancers develop after menopause. Menopause is considered to have occurred when a woman goes one year without a menstrual period. On average, menopause occurs at age 51 in the United States. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women over the age of 60.
Although ovarian cancer is rare in younger women, the types that do occur tend to be easier to treat than the epithelial tumors that affect older women. This is in contrast to breast cancer, which tends to be more difficult to treat in younger women.
There seems to be a relationship between the number of menstrual cycles that occur in a woman's lifetime and her risk of developing ovarian cancer. For this reason, starting menstruation at an early age (before age 12), not having children or having your first child after age 30, and experiencing menopause after age 50 may increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
By the same reasoning, using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) appears to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, especially after five years of use, perhaps because it stops the ovulation process. Having a hysterectomy, or surgical removal of the uterus, or tubal ligation (tying the tubes to prevent pregnancy) also seems to reduce the ovarian cancer risk.
Breast feeding slightly lowers the ovarian cancer risk, most likely because breast feeding may delay the start of the menstrual period after pregnancy.
Personal History of Breast Cancer
If you have had breast cancer, your risk for developing ovarian cancer is increased. This may be because inherited mutations of certain genes may increase your risk of both types of cancers, or because of other common risk factors.
Some studies suggest that long-term use of a fertility drug (clomiphene citrate) may increase a woman's risk of developing borderline (grade 0) EOC, but this is still under investigation. Some research suggests that it is not the drug itself, but the underlying infertility, that increases the EOC risk.
It has been suggested that talcum powder applied directly to the genital area or on sanitary napkins may cause ovarian cancer, but this link is not well documented. The finding in some studies may relate to the fact that in the past talcum powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos, a known cancer-causing mineral.
- Next section of Taking Charge: If You Are at High Risk for Ovarian Cancer
Return to the Taking Charge Index
- What Is Breast Cancer?
- Who Gets Breast Cancer?
- If You Are at High Risk for Breast Cancer
- Screening for Breast Cancer
- How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
- How Is Breast Cancer Treated?
- What Is Ovarian Cancer?
- Who Gets Ovarian Cancer?
- If You Are at High Risk for Ovarian Cancer
- Screening for Ovarian Cancer
- How Is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?
- How is Ovarian Cancer Treated?
- Living With Cancer
- Diet, Lifestyle and Cancer
- Glossary of Terms
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.
Basic Facts About Breast Health
Learn basic facts about breast structure and function and how to differentiate between the different types and stages of breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Glossary
Check out our comprehensive Glossary of Breast Cancer terminology, which includes definitions of everything from AC chemotherapy to peripheral neuropathy.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Click now to find a summary of the factors that increase risk for developing breast cancer, including both factors that we cannot change and those we can.
Self-Care and Recovery
Self-Care and recovery resources including an Introduction to Lifestyle Change, Nutrition and Breast Cancer, Hydration: Water and Health, Meditation and more.
Breast reconstruction, surgery to rebuild a breast's shape, is often an option after mastectomy and is covered by some health insurance plans. Learn more now.
Follow-Up Care for Breast Cancer Patients
After patients have completed treatment for early stage breast cancer, one of the common questions is, "How should I best be monitored?" Learn more here.
Mastectomy: Instructions Before Surgery
The following information will help you prepare for your upcoming Mastectomy surgery. If you have any questions, please contact the Breast Care Center staff.
Mastectomy: Instructions After Surgery
Post Mastectomy surgery instructions including, pain management, incision and dressing care, activity, diet, follow-up care and more.
Menopause and Breast Cancer
Breast cancer treatment often causes women to enter menopause prematurely. Although each woman reacts to therapy individually, certain side effects are common.
Metastatic Breast Cancer: Diagnosis and Treatment
Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that originated in the breast and has spread to other organ systems in the body. Learn more here.
Navigating Your Path to Breast Care
Different services and information are needed at different points in breast health care and breast cancer treatment. Learn more here.
Osteoporosis and Breast Cancer
Women who have had breast cancer or are considered at high risk for developing breast cancer are at risk for developing osteoporosis. Learn more.
Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer
The UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center and the Department of Radiation Oncology have compiled information about radiation therapy for your convenience.