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Ovarian Cancer and Menopause

Menopause itself is not linked to a higher risk of developing cancer. But the rates of many cancers, including ovarian cancer, do rise with age. What's more, some of the drugs used to manage menopausal symptoms may raise or lower a person's cancer risk.

What Is Ovarian Cancer?

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

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

What Causes Ovarian Cancer?

The cause is unknown, but you have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer if you:

  • Have a family history of it
  • Have never been pregnant
  • Are over the age of 50

Studies show that women who've had children, who breastfeed, or who use birth control pills are less likely to develop this cancer. These factors decrease the number of times a woman ovulates, and studies suggest reducing that number 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 this 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 it 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 how well the bowel or bladder works
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in the legs

How Can I Protect Myself From Ovarian Cancer?

While there is no clear-cut way to prevent ovarian cancer, you can take steps that may lower your risk and help you or your doctor detect the disease in its early stages. These steps include:

  • Ask your doctor how often you need a pelvic exam.
  • Tell your doctor about any irregular vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain.
  • If you have close family members (mother, sister, or daughter) with ovarian cancer, tell your doctor.
  • Don't use too much talcum powder on or near the vagina.
  • Eat a low-fat diet.

 We don't know for sure if eating a low-fat diet, or one that's rich in vegetables, can lower your risk. But a healthy diet can lower your risk for many chronic diseases, including some other types of cancer. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD, FACOG on July 13, 2014

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