The ovaries are almond-sized organs -- one on each side of a woman’s uterus -- that store their eggs and make female hormones. When you have ovarian cancer, malignant cells begin to grow in the ovary. Cancer that starts in another part of your body can also spread, or metastasize, to your ovaries, but that is not considered ovarian cancer.
What Causes It?
Researchers have many theories, but no one knows exactly what causes ovarian cancer. Scientists have not been able to find a single chemical in our environment or our diets that they can link specifically to ovarian cancer, unlike some other kinds of cancer.
Certain things -- genetics or the way you live -- can increase the odds that you’ll get ovarian cancer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it.
Some ovarian cancers are linked to gene mutations first discovered in families with lots of cases of breast cancer. Those mutations are called: BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2).
If your family came from Eastern Europe or you have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors, your odds of having one of the BRCA mutations are higher.
If one of your close relatives (grandmother, mother, sister, daughter) had ovarian cancer, you have an increased risk as well, even if their cancer wasn’t linked to a genetic mutation. Your risk also goes up if you have a family history of breast cancer, colon cancer, uterine cancer or rectal cancer.
Other things that can raise your risk of ovarian cancer include:
- Age. Few women younger than 40 get the disease. Most women get ovarian cancer after menopause.
- Obesity. If your Body Mass Index (BMI) is 30 or higher, your risk goes up.
- Hormone replacement therapy. Some studies suggest using estrogen after menopause increases your risk.
Your chances of getting ovarian cancer are also affected by your reproductive history – when your period began and ended, if you had children, and related issues. You have higher odds of getting ovarian cancer if:
- You never gave birth.
- You had your first child after you were 30 years old.
- Your period started before age 12.
- You experienced menopause after age 50.
- You never took birth control pills.
- You experienced infertility, even if you didn’t take fertility drugs to treat it.
Other things that may increase your ovarian cancer risk include:
- Using an intrauterine device, or IUD (Researchers disagree on whether or not these raise your risk.)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome, a problem with your endocrine system that leads to enlarged ovaries
Some people believe using talcum powder near your genitals is linked to ovarian cancer, but the evidence on that is not clear.
Can I Prevent It?
Because so little is known about the specific causes of ovarian cancer, there’s not a long list of ways to prevent it.
If your family history points to an increased risk, your doctor can help you decide how best to manage your situation. Possible strategies include genetic testing and counseling. If your risk is high, you may decide to have your ovaries removed as a precaution. This surgery is called a prophylactic oophorectomy.
Other things that can lower your odds of ovarian cancer include: