Several factors affect a person’s likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. Some characteristics, like our inherited genetic mutations, ethnicity, and age, are beyond our control. However, habits like quitting smoking and eating well can improve the odds of staying cancer-free and provide extended benefits for your general health and well-being.
Statistics on who gets ovarian cancer don’t always translate to each individual’s story. There are cases of low-risk people who are diagnosed, as well as high-risk people who never develop the cancer. Still, focusing on the risk factors that you can control while staying on top of your preventive screenings offers the best chance of stopping ovarian cancer in its tracks. Here are some things you can do to cut down on your risk.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center experts report approximately 10 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have gene mutations such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation or a family history associated with the disease. Genetic testing can help reveal these risk factors.
However, the decision to have a genetic test shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not everyone benefits from genetic testing, and the results may lead to needless worry — just because you have a specific gene mutation doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get ovarian cancer. Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons of genetic counseling to determine if this type of counseling makes sense for you.
If you have a strong family history of ovarian cancer or other associated health conditions, you may want to arm yourself with as much information as possible. After you recei your genetic test results, a genetic counselor can help you understand how your DNA affects your overall risk compared to the risk of the general population.
Various forms of birth control have been shown to lower the risk of ovarian cancer. For example, those who use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) for at least five years are less likely to get ovarian cancer than those who don’t. In addition, tubal ligation (having one’s fallopian tubes tied) or hysterectomy (removing one’s uterus) also reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
After menopause, taking hormones can have the opposite effect on ovarian cancer risk. If you’re prescribed any medication with estrogen after menopause, ask your physician about your chances of ovarian cancer to decide if you should take the added risk of hormone replacement therapy.
Numerous factors go into planning to have children and deciding on the best time to become pregnant. It’s good to be aware of how these choices can affect your risk of ovarian cancer, even if that information won’t make or break your decision.
For instance, waiting to have your first full-term pregnancy until after age 35 increases ovarian cancer risk. Experts also suspect that certain medications for infertility can elevate the risk of less invasive forms of ovarian cancer. Talk to your doctor to learn more about your risks if you plan to start a family.
If you give birth and are able to breastfeed, both you and your baby will typically stand to benefit. Breastfeeding for at least one year is associated with lower rates of ovarian cancer. However, there are various reasons why some people choose not to breastfeed, and as long as your infant is receiving the nutrition they need, you shouldn’t feel guilty for making that choice.
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding and would like support and guidance, ask your health care provider or your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a certified lactation consultant. The nonprofit group La Leche League International also provides support for breastfeeding issues.
It’s no surprise that quitting or avoiding smoking tops the list for all types of cancer prevention. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of the mucinous type of ovarian cancer. It’s also important to be mindful of your exposure to secondhand smoke, also known as passive smoking. Little is known about the exact correlation between passive smoking and ovarian cancer risk, but according to the American Cancer Society, there’s no safe level of exposure. If you or someone you live with is a smoker, quitting should be the first priority for a healthier household. Check out online resources from the CDC to get started with quitting.
Excess body weight can contribute to high inflammation levels that increase the risk of several forms of cancer. Although the link between body mass index (referred to as BMI) and ovarian cancer isn’t fully understood, researchers suspect obesity is correlated with less aggressive high-grade serous cancers.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoiding refined sugars, and living an active lifestyle are all positive steps to lower your risk of ovarian cancer and other diseases. To develop a plan to achieve a weight that’s healthy for your body, consider meeting with a registered dietitian.
For those with a significantly high risk of ovarian cancer — such as people with genetic indicators and a history of related conditions like Lynch syndrome, breast cancer, or endometriosis — surgical removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes may be recommended. This surgery is called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. This type of preventive surgery to remove the ovaries can reduce the chance of getting ovarian cancer by up to 95 percent.
Ovary removal surgery is performed laparoscopically and is considered a minimally invasive outpatient procedure. (In laparoscopic surgery, a surgeon inserts a thin tube with a scope into a small incision, or cut, in order to precisely direct ovary removal.) Most people recover quickly. That said, the main side effect one must prepare for after this surgery is menopause.
MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. On MyOvarianCancerTeam, more than 4,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.
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