What Are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?
A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease like cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, unprotected exposure to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for a number of cancers.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors. Even if a woman with ovarian cancer has a risk factor, it is very hard to know how much that risk factor may have contributed to the cancer. Researchers have discovered several specific factors that change a woman's likelihood of developing epithelial ovarian cancer. These risk factors don’t apply to other less common types of ovarian cancer like germ cell tumors and stromal tumors.
The risk of developing ovarian cancer gets higher with age. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.
Various studies have looked at the relationship of obesity and ovarian cancer. Overall, it seems that obese women (those with a body mass index of at least 30) have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Women who have been pregnant and carried it to term before age 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who have not. The risk goes down with each full-term pregnancy. Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or who never carried a pregnancy to term have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Breastfeeding may lower the risk even further.
Women who have used oral contraceptives (also known as birth control pills or the pill) have a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The lower risk is seen after only 3 to 6 months of using the pill, and the risk is lower the longer the pills are used. This lower risk continues for many years after the pill is stopped.
A recent study found that the women who used depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA or Depo-Provera CI®), an injectable hormonal contraceptive had a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The risk was even lower if the women had used it for 3 or more years.
Tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) may reduce the chance of developing ovarian cancer by up to two-thirds. A hysterectomy (removing the uterus without removing the ovaries) also seems to reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer by about one-third.
In some studies, researchers have found that using the fertility drug clomiphene citrate (Clomid®) for longer than one year may increase the risk for developing ovarian tumors. The risk seemed to be highest in women who did not get pregnant while on this drug. Fertility drugs seem to increase the risk of the type of ovarian tumors known as "low malignant potential" (described in the section, What Is Ovarian Cancer?). If you are taking fertility drugs, you should discuss the potential risks with your doctor. However, women who are infertile may be at higher risk (compared to fertile women) even if they don’t use fertility drugs. This might be in part because they haven't carried a pregnancy to term or used birth control pills (which are protective).
Androgens are male hormones. Danazol, a drug that increases androgen levels, was linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer in a small study. In a larger study, this link was not confirmed, but women who took androgens were found to have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Further studies of the role of androgens in ovarian cancer are needed.
Estrogen therapy and hormone therapy
Some recent studies suggest women using estrogens after menopause have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The risk seems to be higher in women taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for many years (at least 5 or 10). The increased risk is less certain for women taking both estrogen and progesterone.
Family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer
Ovarian cancer can run in families. Your ovarian cancer risk is increased if your mother, sister, or daughter has (or has had) ovarian cancer. The risk also gets higher the more relatives you have with ovarian cancer. Increased risk for ovarian cancer can also come from your father's side.
A family history of some other types of cancer such as colorectal and breast cancer is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. This is because these cancers can be caused by an inherited mutation (change) in certain genes that cause a family cancer syndrome that increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
Family cancer syndromes
About 5 to 10% of ovarian cancers are a part of family cancer syndromes resulting from inherited changes (mutations) in certain genes.
Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome
This syndrome is caused by inherited mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as possibly some other genes that have not yet been identified. This syndrome is linked to a high risk of breast cancer as well as ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancers. The risk of some other cancers, such as pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, are also increased.
Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are also responsible for most inherited ovarian cancers. When these genes are normal they help prevent cancer by making proteins that keep cells from growing abnormally (they act as tumor suppressors). But if you have inherited a mutation (defect) in one of these genes from either parent, this cancer-preventing protein is less effective, and your chances of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer increase. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are about 10 times more common in those who are Ashkenazi Jewish than those in the general U.S. population.
The lifetime ovarian cancer risk for women with a BRCA1 mutation is estimated to be between 35% and 70%. This means that if 100 women had a BRCA1 mutation, between 35 and 70 of them would get ovarian cancer. For women with BRCA2 mutations the risk has been estimated to be between 10% and 30% by age 70. These mutations also increase the risks for primary peritoneal carcinoma and fallopian tube carcinoma.
In comparison, the ovarian cancer lifetime risk for the women in the general population is less than 2%.
PTEN tumor hamartoma syndrome
In this syndrome, also known as Cowden disease, people are primarily affected with thyroid problems, thyroid cancer, and breast cancer. Women also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. It is caused by inherited mutations in the PTEN gene.
Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer
Women with this syndrome have a very high risk of colon cancer and also have an increased risk of developing cancer of the uterus (endometrial cancer) and ovarian cancer. Many different genes can cause this syndrome. They include MLH1, MLH3, MSH2, MSH6, TGFBR2, PMS1, and PMS2. An abnormal copy of any one of these genes reduces the body's ability to repair damage to its DNA. The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer in women with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) is about 10%. Up to 1% of all ovarian epithelial cancers occur in women with this syndrome. An older name for HNPCC is Lynch syndrome.
People with this rare genetic syndrome develop polyps in the stomach and intestine while they are teenagers. They also have a high risk of cancer, particularly cancers of the digestive tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon). Women with this syndrome have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, including both epithelial ovarian cancer and a type of stromal tumor called sex cord tumor with annular tubules (SCTAT). This syndrome is caused by mutations in the gene STK11.
People with this syndrome develop polyps in the colon and small intestine and have a high risk of colon cancer. They are also more likely to develop other cancers, including cancers of the ovary and bladder. This syndrome is caused by mutations in the gene MUTYH.
Personal history of breast cancer
If you have had breast cancer, you might also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. There are several reasons for this. Some of the reproductive risk factors for ovarian cancer may also affect breast cancer risk. The risk of ovarian cancer after breast cancer is highest in those women with a family history of breast cancer. A strong family history of breast cancer may be caused by an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, which is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
It has been suggested that talcum powder applied directly to the genital area or on sanitary napkins may be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to the ovaries. Some, studies suggest a very slight increase in risk of ovarian cancer in women who used talc on the genital area. In the past, talcum powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos, a known cancer-causing mineral. This might explain the association with ovarian cancer in some studies. Since the 1970s, however, body and face powder products have been required by law to be asbestos-free. Proving the safety of these newer products will require follow-up studies of women who have used them for many years. There is no evidence at present linking cornstarch powders with any female cancers.
A study of women who followed a low-fat diet for at least 4 years showed a lower risk of ovarian cancer. Some studies have shown a reduced rate of ovarian cancer in women who ate a diet high in vegetables, but other studies disagree. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a variety of healthful foods, with an emphasis on plant sources. Eat at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day, as well as several servings of whole grain foods from plant sources such as breads, cereals, grain products, rice, pasta, or beans. Limit the amount of red meat and processed meats you eat. Even though the effect of these dietary recommendations on ovarian cancer risk remains uncertain, following them can help prevent several other diseases, including some other types of cancer.
In some studies, both aspirin and acetaminophen have been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. However, the information isn’t consistent. Women who don’t already take these medicines regularly for other health conditions should not start doing so to try to prevent ovarian cancer. More research is needed on this issue.
Smoking and alcohol use
Smoking doesn’t increase the risk of ovarian cancer overall, but it is linked to an increased risk for the mucinous type.
Drinking alcohol is not linked to ovarian cancer risk.
Last Medical Review: August 5, 2014 Last Revised: February 4, 2016