Ovarian Cancer Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Most women have one or more risk factors for ovarian cancer. But risk factors only partly explain the disease, since most of them increase risk only slightly. So far, what we know about risk factors has not led to ways to prevent the disease.

For women at average risk

Some of the things listed below might reduce the risk of the epithelial ovarian cancer (the most common type) only slightly, while others might decrease it much more. If you are concerned about your risk, especially if you have a family history of cancer, you should talk to your doctor.

Birth control pills

Birth control pills reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, especially among women who use them for 5 years or more. These women have about half the risk of getting ovarian cancer compared with women who never used the pill. Still, birth control pills do have some serious risks and side effects. Women thinking about taking these pills for any reason should first discuss the pros and cons with their doctor.

Surgery

Getting your “tubes tied” (tubal ligation) or having your uterus removed (hysterectomy) can both lower your chance of getting ovarian cancer. But these operations should only be done for a good medical reason and not just for their effect on ovarian cancer risk.

If you are going to have a hysterectomy for a medical reason and you have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer, you might think about having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed at the same time.

Prevention for women with a family history of ovarian cancer as well as cancer due to gene changes (mutations)

Women with a family history of ovarian (or certain other cancers) might want to think about genetic counseling and maybe genetic testing. Before asking for the test, a woman should discuss the benefits and possible drawbacks with her doctor. Genetic testing can help tell if a woman carries certain gene changes that cause a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Still, the results are not always clear cut, and a genetic counselor can help sort out what the results mean. When a woman learns that she doesn’t have the gene change, it can be a great relief, while finding out that she does can be quite stressful. Still, the information can be helpful in looking at methods to prevent cancer. More details about genetic testing can be found in our document, Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know.

Using the birth control pill (oral contraception) is one way that many women can reduce their risk of ovarian cancer. The pill also seems to reduce the risk for women with certain gene changes (known as BRCA1 and BRCA2). But birth control pills can increase breast cancer risk in women without these changes. This increased risk continues for some time after these pills are stopped. Studies that have looked at this issue in women with BRCA mutations haven’t agreed about what effect birth control pills have on breast cancer risk. Some studies have shown an increased risk of breast cancer, while some have not. Research is going on to find out more about the risks and benefits of the pill for women at high ovarian and breast cancer risk.

Research shows that taking out both ovaries and fallopian tubes protects women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations against ovarian and fallopian tube cancer. This operation lowers ovarian cancer risk a great deal but does not entirely get rid of it. This is because some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer already have a cancer at the time of surgery. These cancers can be so small that they are only found when the ovaries and fallopian tubes are looked at under the microscope (after they are removed). Also, women who have had their ovaries removed can still get a type of cancer called primary peritoneal carcinoma, but this is rare. As a rule, this surgery is recommended only for very high-risk patients (based on their chance of having a gene mutation) after they are done having children.


Last Medical Review: 04/22/2013
Last Revised: 02/06/2014