Causes & Risk Factors of Ovarian Cancers
Ovarian cancer begins in the cells of the ovaries—the pair of small, almond-shaped female organs in the pelvic area that produce ova (eggs) for reproduction. While ovarian cancer isn’t as common as breast or uterine cancers, it’s more dangerous and requires a robust treatment approach.
What causes ovarian cancers?
The specific causes of ovarian cancer are unclear. In general, ovarian cancer—like other forms of cancer—develops when genetic mutations (changes) transform normal, healthy cells into abnormal cells that divide and multiply in a disorderly fashion. The resulting accumulation of cells can form a tumor that may become malignant, invade nearby tissues and spread to other tissues and organs throughout the body.
While the causes of ovarian cancer are not completely understood, the scientific community continues to make progress in learning how certain DNA mutations that occur in the cells of the ovaries can lead to a buildup that eventually becomes cancerous.
Inherited genetic mutations
There are certain inherited genetic mutations that can cause healthy ovarian cells to become cancerous, including mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations can also occur in genes that are associated with other family cancer syndromes such as PTEN tumor hamartoma syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, MUTYH-associated polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer.
Acquired genetic changes
Most often, a mutation that causes ovarian cancer is acquired, rather than inherited, meaning that the genetic changes occur during the course of the woman’s lifetime as opposed to being present at birth. However, studies have not yet pinpointed any specific reasons that may be causing these mutations.
Ovarian cancer risk factors
Several ovarian cancer risk factors have been identified, but risk factors don’t tell the whole story of how cancer develops. For example, many women who have one or more risk factors never develop ovarian cancer. On the other hand, some women with ovarian cancer have no known risk factors. Even when a woman with ovarian cancer does have a risk factor, it is impossible to determine whether it actually contributed in any way to the development of her cancer.
Ovarian cancer risk factors you can change
There are a few established risk factors for ovarian cancer that can be controlled, including:
- Estrogen exposure – Women who take estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
- Obesity – Women who are obese in early adulthood are more likely to develop ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer risk factors you can’t change
On the other hand, most ovarian risk factors can’t be changed. For example:
- Age – The risk for developing ovarian cancer increases with age, particularly after age 55.
- Family history – Women who have a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) with ovarian cancer have a higher risk, which increases further when two or more first- or second-degree (grandmother or aunt) relatives have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
- Genetics – A mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is associated with an increased risk of ovarian and other cancers.
- Personal history of breast cancer – A breast cancer diagnosis can increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer, even when she tests negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations.
- Reproductive history – Women who began menstruating before age 12, have never been pregnant, have unexplained infertility, have never taken oral contraceptives, had their first child after age 30 or experienced menopause after age 55 have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer prevention
While it’s not possible to guarantee the prevention of ovarian cancer entirely, there are steps that individuals can take to reduce their risk of developing this disease. Ovarian cancer prevention strategies involve a combination of lifestyle choices, medical interventions and awareness of risk factors. By addressing risk factors you can change and by adopting healthy habits, individuals can play an active role in reducing their likelihood of ovarian cancer. These interventions include:
Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Reduce cancer risk and promote overall health by:
- Eating a healthy and nutritious diet – A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can contribute to overall health and potentially lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Antioxidant-rich foods, such as berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens, may help protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer. Reducing the consumption of processed and red meats, as well as sugary and high-fat foods, may also be beneficial.
- Engaging in physical activity – Regular physical activity has been associated with a reduced risk of various cancers, including ovarian cancer. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week. Incorporating activities like walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling can contribute to overall well-being.
- Maintaining a healthy weight – Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. By maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise, individuals can help reduce their risk.
- Quitting smoking – Smoking has been associated with an elevated risk of several cancers, including ovarian cancer. Quitting smoking not only lowers the risk of cancer but also improves overall health.
Beyond lifestyle choices, there are also medical steps that can be taken to help reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer, such as:
- Taking oral contraceptives – The use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Women who have taken oral contraceptives for several years may experience a protective effect against this type of cancer.
- Undergoing a salpingectomy – Some women at high risk of ovarian cancer may consider a preventive surgery called salpingectomy. This procedure involves the removal of the fallopian tubes, which are believed to be where some ovarian cancers originate.
- Getting genetic counseling and testing – Identifying the types of genetic mutations listed above can inform personalized risk management strategies.
Awareness and Early Detection
Finally, while these steps won’t necessarily prevent you from developing ovarian cancer, they can help you catch the disease in its early stages and improve your chances of a good outcome:
- Knowing your family history – Understanding your family's medical history, especially instances of ovarian, breast and other related cancers, can help you assess your risk and guide your preventive strategy.
- Getting regular check-ups – Routine gynecological check-ups and screenings can facilitate early detection of any abnormalities. Discuss your risk factors with your healthcare provider to determine the appropriate screening schedule for you.
- Being aware of the symptoms – While ovarian cancer is often referred to as the "silent killer" due to its subtle symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal discomfort, changes in bowel habits and frequent urination, being vigilant about any persistent or unusual symptoms is crucial. Prompt medical evaluation can lead to earlier diagnosis and improved outcomes.
Common ovarian cancer causes & risk factor FAQs
Take a closer look at ovarian cancer causes and risk factors by browsing some frequently asked questions on this topic:
- What can I do to decrease my risk of ovarian cancer?
- What’s the No. 1 risk factor for ovarian cancer?
- Is there a genetic predisposition for ovarian cancer?
- Is there a connection between breast cancer and ovarian cancer?
Get the ovarian cancer help you need at Moffitt Cancer Center
The multispecialty team at Moffitt Cancer Center’s gynecological clinic is committed to conducting groundbreaking clinical trials and delivering highly individualized care to better prevent, diagnose and treat ovarian cancer. This patient-first focus ensures we remain firmly positioned at the forefront of cancer treatment. In recognition of our research efforts, the National Cancer Institute has designated Moffitt as the only Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida, and national experts consistently rank Moffitt among the top 1% of cancer centers in the U.S.
To discuss your ovarian cancer risk factors, consult with a genetic counselor or learn more about Moffitt’s ovarian cancer treatment options, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. A referral isn’t necessary to visit Moffitt, and you’ll be matched with the right clinician for your needs as soon as possible.