Could You Be at Increased Risk of Developing Ovarian Cancer?

Mar 31, 2023


Breast cancer news stories are common, but few stories discuss its deadlier cousin, ovarian cancer. What do you know about ovarian cancer? What do you need to know?

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer can involve the ovaries or related areas of the fallopian tubes or peritoneum — the membrane that lines abdominal organs.

One in 78 women will get ovarian cancer, compared with 1 in 8 for breast cancer. Although it is much less common than breast cancer, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than other gynecologic cancers.

Why is ovarian cancer so deadly?

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are not specific and are often the same as symptoms caused by other conditions. Patients frequently don't notice until the disease is advanced, often after it has spread to other organs in the body.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Common complaints include:

  • Bloating.
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain.
  • Trouble eating or a feeling of fullness.
  • Feeling like you need to urinate right away.
  • Constipation.
  • Back pain.
  • Pain during sex.
  • A swollen belly combined with weight loss.

Am I at risk?

It's impossible to predict for certain who will get the disease, but factors that increase your risk include:

  • Your age. The disease is most common in women 55 years and older, though younger women can get it too.
  • Your pregnancy history. Women who have never been pregnant or had a full-term pregnancy, or those who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 35, are at higher risk.
  • Your weight. Being at an unhealthy weight increases risk.
  • Hormone replacement therapy. That’s especially true if you take estrogen alone or with progesterone after menopause.
  • Your personal or family medical history. Having a close female relative with ovarian cancer or a family or personal history of breast, uterine or colorectal cancer raises your risk.
  • Carrying certain genes. These include the breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Your provider may recommend being tested for these genes depending on your family history.
  • Your race/ethnicity. White women and women with Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish backgrounds are at higher risk.
  • Having endometriosis.
  • Smoking.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed and treated?

Your doctor may order a transvaginal ultrasound to check your ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus.

A blood test can also measure the level of the protein CA-125 in your blood. Though elevated CA-125 levels can signal the presence of ovarian cancer, they can also be a sign of other conditions. An internal exam and a biopsy are other diagnostic tools.

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are standard treatments and can help prolong survival. This is especially true if ovarian cancer is caught early, when five-year survival rates increase to about 94%. But because symptoms can be vague, early diagnosis is often difficult.

If you experience uncomfortable, persistent symptoms — even if they're vague — or if you have risk factors for the disease, talk to your provider. It may save your life.

Find a provider near you today.

Sources: American Cancer Society; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Ovarian Cancer Coalition