About ovarian cancer

What should people know about ovarian cancer?

The ovaries are female reproductive glands, located in the abdomen near the uterus. The ovaries produce eggs needed for human reproduction. They also produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Each year in New York State, about 1,450 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and nearly 900 women die of the disease. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths among women in New York.

Who gets ovarian cancer?

All women can get ovarian cancer. However, ovarian cancer is more common among older women. Most women who get ovarian cancer are over the age of 55. White women are more likely to get ovarian cancer than other women.

What factors increase risk for developing ovarian cancer?

At this time, the causes of ovarian cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a woman's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Family history. Women with a close relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has had ovarian, breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer are at increased risk for ovarian cancer.
  • Genetics. Women with certain genetic changes (BRCA1, BRCA2 and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer) are at higher risk for getting ovarian cancer. Up to 10% of ovarian cancers may be due to genetic factors.
  • Personal history. Women with a personal history of cancer of the breast, uterus, colon or rectum have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Reproductive history. Women who have never been pregnant have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

What other risk factors for ovarian cancer are scientists studying?

Scientists are studying other possible personal risk factors for ovarian cancer, including being infertile and/or taking certain fertility drugs, having endometriosis, being obese, taking hormone replacement therapy, using talcum powder, diet, and smoking. Some studies have suggested that women who have been exposed to asbestos are at higher risk.

There are also some factors that have been associated with a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. Scientists generally agree that women who have taken oral contraceptives (birth control pills) or who have had a tubal ligation (had their tubes tied) are at lower risk, and risk may be lower in women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus). Some studies have shown that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of ovarian cancer.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting ovarian cancer?

To help reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer:

  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer and talk to your health care provider if these occur. Ovarian cancer may be easier to treat if found early.
  • If you are at higher risk, speak with your health care provider about other actions you can take to reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second-hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

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