Ovarian Cancer: What Is Your Risk?

The causes of most ovarian cancers are not known, but hormones may be partly to blame. Studies suggest that the fewer times a woman ovulates, the less likely she is to get this cancer.

A woman may be at higher risk for the disease if she:

  • Is older than age 50
  • Has a personal history of breast or colon cancer
  • Has a close female relative who had breast or colon cancer
  • Has never given birth
  • Has taken hormone replacement therapy after menopause

Some research suggests that a high-fat diet may also increase risk.

“About 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases are linked to genetic factors,” says Robert DeBernardo, MD, gynecologic oncologist at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and UH MacDonald Women’s Hospital. “Women who have a close female relative — mother, sister, or daughter — who had ovarian cancer are at greater risk. So are women with mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.”

These mutations, which are most common in Jewish women of Eastern European descent, also increase the risk for breast cancer.

A woman may have a lower risk if she:

  • Had a child whom she breastfed
  • Has had a tubal ligation or a hysterectomy

Symptoms of ovarian cancer often do not show up until the late stages of the disease. They include:

  • Feeling bloated
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Urinating often
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

Based on a woman’s risk factors, her doctor can recommend screening tests or prophylactic strategies that may be appropriate. “Pelvic exams, ultrasound exams and other tests can help detect ovarian cancer,” Dr. DeBernardo says.

Unfortunately, they do not guarantee early detection. About 80 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in advanced stages of the disease — when the long-term survival rate is lowest.

If she is at high risk, a woman and her doctor may consider surgery to remove the ovaries before cancer is present. The surgery can reduce the risk of cancer substantially, but there are risks and side effects of the surgery that need to be considered when making these decisions.

debernardo-jr-robert
Robert Debernardo Jr.
Gynecologic Oncologist
UH Seidman Cancer Center
and UH MacDonald Women’s Hospital
Assistant Professor
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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