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Ovarian Cancer and Menopause

Menopause itself is not associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. However, the rates of many cancers, including ovarian cancer, do increase with age. In addition, some of the drugs used to manage menopausal symptoms may increase or decrease a person's cancer risk.

What Is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in a woman's ovaries. Ovarian cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths among women. It most often occurs in women who are older than 50; according to the American Cancer Society, over half of those diagnosed with ovarian cancer are age 60 or older.

When found in its earliest stages, over 90% of women treated for ovarian cancer will live longer than 5 years. Unfortunately, early ovarian cancer is hard to detect. Many cases of ovarian cancer are found after the cancer has spread to other organs. In these cases, the cancer is much more difficult to treat and cure.

What Causes Ovarian Cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not yet known. You have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if you:

  • Have a family history of ovarian cancer
  • Have never been pregnant
  • Are over the age of 50, because the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer increases as you age

Studies show that women who have had children, who breastfeed, or who use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) are less likely to develop ovarian cancer. These factors decrease the number of times a woman ovulates, and studies suggest that reducing the number of ovulations during a woman's lifetime may lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

Menopause itself does not cause ovarian cancer. But studies have linked long-term estrogen replacement therapy (more than 10 years) to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Women should discuss the risks and benefits of this type of hormone therapy with their doctor.

What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

In its early stages, ovarian cancer has few symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is usually an enlarged ovary. The ovaries are located deep within the pelvic cavity, so swelling may go unnoticed until it becomes more advanced.

Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen (caused by build-up of fluids produced by the tumor)
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Change in bowel or bladder function
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in the legs

How Can I Protect Myself From Ovarian Cancer?

While there is no definitive way to prevent ovarian cancer, there are steps you can take that may reduce your risk and detect the disease in its early stages, increasing your chances of survival. They include:

  • Get a routine pelvic exam.
  • Report any irregular vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain to your doctor.
  • If you have close family members (mother, sister, or daughter) with ovarian cancer, discuss your risk factors with your doctor.
  • Don't use excessive talcum powder on or near the vagina.
  • Eat a low-fat diet.

 Although it is not known for sure if eating a low-fat diet or one that is rich in vegetables can actually decrease your risk of developing ovarian cancer, eating a healthy diet can decrease your risk for many chronic diseases, including some other types of cancer. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 05, 2012

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