Ovarian cancer is a malignant cancer of the ovaries. It can develop suddenly and spread very quickly. Because it is hard to detect in the early stages, ovarian cancer can be very advanced before you begin treatment. The American Cancer Society estimates that 19,800 people will be diagnosed with this cancer in 2022, and 12,810 will die from the disease.
All people with ovaries are at risk for ovarian cancer, including cisgender women, intersexual men with hidden or undiscovered ovaries, and transgender men who have retained their ovaries. Taking hormones for gender transition is not known to decrease your ovarian cancer risk.
Why does ovarian cancer occur?
Experts don't understand the underlying causes of ovarian cancer. It's not linked to unhealthy behaviors the way lung cancer is linked to smoking. A few known genetic abnormalities are associated with a much higher than average risk. However, the majority of people who get ovarian cancer don't carry those genetic mutations, so even that isn't a clear cause.
There are general risk factors that experts have identified as increasing the likelihood of getting ovarian cancer. The presence of one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean that cancer is inevitable. It simply means that you should be aware of your risks and talk about them with your doctor.
What are ovarian cancer risk factors?
Your risk of ovarian cancer grows as you get older. Approximately half of the women who get ovarian cancer are over the age of 60.
If you have a relative who has had ovarian cancer, you may be at higher risk. This applies to close relatives such as your mother, sisters, grandmothers, or aunts. Some experts believe there is a link between ovarian cancer and breast cancer. If a close relative had breast cancer, you might have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Certain genetic abnormalities increase your risk of ovarian cancer. If you carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations or one associated with Lynch syndrome, you are more prone to ovarian cancer. The only way to learn if you have these mutations is to have genetic testing. Your doctor can help you get the testing done.
If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish or Eastern European extraction, you may be at increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Other reproductive health conditions
Certain conditions affecting the uterus are connected to higher ovarian cancer risks. Endometriosis may indicate a higher than average risk. Difficulty getting pregnant or infertility problems can also be signs of higher risk.
Prior cancer history
A previous cancer diagnosis makes you more likely to have cancer again. In particular, a prior diagnosis of breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer indicates a chance you could get ovarian cancer in the future.
Experts believe that being overweight or obese can play a role in ovarian cancer.
Age of menarche and menopause
If your menstrual cycles started at a very young age, you could have a greater risk of ovarian cancer. Late menopause may also increase risks.
Taking hormone treatments for symptoms of menopause can affect your ovarian cancer risk.
How can I reduce my ovarian cancer risk?
Some of the risk factors for ovarian cancer are unchangeable. A family history of cancer or being born with a cancer-linked genetic abnormality are not within your control. Knowing about those risks is helpful when you talk to your doctor about your health. They can help you be aware of symptoms or changes to your body that might indicate cancer.
There are links between menstruation and ovarian cancer, though they are not well-understood. Reducing the number of menstrual cycles you have throughout your life might reduce your risk. You can take a birth control formula that will stop your cycle artificially. Taking these pills for five years or more may reduce ovarian cancer risk. Full-term pregnancies and breastfeeding may also prevent your cycle for various amounts of time. Pregnancy and nursing can reduce the likelihood that you will develop cancer later.
Surgery to remove reproductive organs, including your ovaries, uterus, or cervix, is also effective for reducing cancer risk. Getting your tubes tied or undergoing a hysterectomy may lower ovarian cancer risk. Having your ovaries removed will cut your risk almost entirely, though it is possible for cancer to develop on any remaining reproductive organs. Prophylactic surgery is a significant decision you should discuss with your doctor and family.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including avoiding smoking, will reduce your cancer risk.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
Many of the signs of ovarian cancer are similar to symptoms of other, more common health issues. One symptom that may stand out is unusual vaginal bleeding, even if you are post-menopause. You should call your doctor right away to discuss unusual bleeding. It is often a sign of a health issue.
Other symptoms include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Back pain
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
- Discomfort in the pelvic area
- Frequent urges to urinate
- Quickly feeling full when eating
- Weight loss
Call your doctor if you have these symptoms and they don't go away. They may indicate you should get screening for ovarian cancer or other health issues. Screening may include blood tests and imaging tests such as ultrasound.
There are effective treatments available for ovarian cancer. You may need surgery to remove the cancer. Surgery may require removing your ovaries and surrounding tissue or organs. Talk to your doctor about the effects treatments will have on your body and your fertility.
You may also need chemotherapy to kill off any remaining cancer cells in your system. New treatment options include targeted therapy to destroy cancer cells without affecting surrounding cells. You might be a candidate for hormone therapy to prevent cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow. Your doctor will work with you to choose the best treatment plan.
Knowing your ovarian cancer risk factors can help you manage your health. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about ovarian cancer.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
The American Cancer Society: "Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?" "What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Ovarian Cancer?" "What Are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?"
Mayo Clinic: "Ovarian cancer."
MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Ovarian Cancer."
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors & Prevention."
National LGBT Cancer Network: "Ovarian Cancer in Transgender Men."
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