Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors

As with many cancer types, ovarian cancer has some risks factors that can be controlled -- and many others that can't. Examples of risk factors that can't be controlled include a personal history of breast cancer, family history of ovarian cancer, and certain genetic mutations. Fortunately, there are also "negative" risk factors, such as having a baby, that make it less likely for you to develop ovarian cancer.

Am I at Risk for Ovarian Cancer?

If you are a woman, then you are automatically at risk for ovarian cancer (even, surprisingly, if you've had your ovaries removed). About 1 in 70 women in the United States will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime. However, 1 in 70 is just an average. There are factors that increase your risk of ovarian cancer, as well as those that reduce it.
Even though most women have very little control over most of the risk factors, it's still important to be mindful of them and to discuss them with your healthcare provider, since ovarian cancer is one of the most deadly female cancers and typically doesn't cause any obvious warning symptoms. If you're at high risk, you and your healthcare provider will want to be especially vigilant in watching for potential ovarian cancer symptoms.

What Are the Main Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors?

Some risk factors, especially ones related to lifestyle, appear to increase the risk of cancer in general. Examples include obesity, lack of physical activity, and tobacco use. However, we're going to focus on the risk factors that are specific to ovarian cancer -- the ones that are clearly linked to the disease.
When reading about medical risk factors, you may see the terms "personal history" and "family history." Having a personal history of a cancer means you have had the disease. Having a family history of a cancer means someone in your family has had the disease. Usually, the risk factor information will specify what type of "family" is meant -- often, just first-degree relatives but occasionally more distant relatives as well.
Known risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
  • Being older
  • Having a history of infertility or assisted reproductive technology (ART) use, including in vitro fertilization
  • Having a history of endometriosis
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat the symptoms of menopause
  • Having a first-degree relative (a sister, mother, or daughter) with ovarian cancer
  • Having had breast cancer
  • Having two or more close relatives diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
  • Being of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage in addition to having a personal or family history (first- or second-degree relative) of breast cancer before age 50 or any family history (first- or second-degree relatives) of ovarian cancer
  • Having certain genetic mutations, such as a mutation in any of the following genes:
    • BRCA1
    • BRCA2
    • MLH1
    • MSH2
    • MSH6. 
Some of these risk factors (such as a history of infertility) only slightly increase your risk, while others (such as genetic mutations) have a much larger effect.
Unfortunately, most of the known risk factors for ovarian cancer are nonmodifiable, meaning we can't change them. We can't change our genes, and we can't change our personal or family histories. We can't help it if we experienced infertility. The one exception is HRT use, which is a modifiable risk factor.
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