PHILADELPHIA (January 4, 2017) – Fox Chase Cancer Center is raising awareness about risk factors and signs of ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), ovarian cancer accounts for approximately 3% of cancers among women and causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. One’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 75.
The ACS links several risk factors with ovarian cancer. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean a woman will develop the disease. “Even if a woman with ovarian cancer has a risk factor, it is extremely difficult to know the degree to which it may have contributed to her cancer,” said gynecologic oncologist Christina S. Chu, MD, Fox Chase. Most common risk factors include:
- Age. A woman’s risk increases with age, with most ovarian cancers developing after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.
- Family history of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer. One’s risk is greater if her mother, sister, or daughter has (or has had) ovarian cancer. The risk increases with the more relatives a woman has with ovarian cancer. Increased risk can come from the father's side as well. A family history of some other types of cancers, including colorectal and breast, is also linked to a higher risk since these cancers can be caused by an inherited mutation in certain genes that cause a family cancer syndrome that increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
- Inherited gene mutation. About 5-10% of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are known to significantly increase the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Mutations that cause Lynch syndrome (associated with colon, endometrial, and ovarian cancer) can affect many different genes, including MLH1, MLH3, MSH2, and MSH6. “I advise women who have a family history of cancers, such as breast, ovarian, colon, and endometrial cancer, to speak with their physician regarding their history risk so they, together, can determine next steps,” said Dr. Chu.
- Reproductive history. Women who have been pregnant and carried it to term before age 26 have a lower risk. The more children a woman has, the lower her risk. Women who breastfeed further reduce their risk.
- Birth control. Women who have used oral contraceptives are at a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The lower risk is seen after only 3-6 months of using the pill, and the risk is lower the longer the pills are used. This decreased risk continues for many years after the pill is stopped.
- Estrogen therapy and hormone therapy. Some studies suggest women using estrogens after menopause have a greater risk for ovarian cancer. The risk seems to be higher in women taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for many years (at least 5 or 10).
- Obesity. Obese women (those with a body mass index of at least 30) seem to be at a higher risk.
- Personal history of breast cancer. Women who have had breast cancer may have a greater risk.
The most common signs of ovarian cancer include:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Weight loss
- A change in bathroom habits, such as having to pass urine very badly or very often, constipation, or diarrhea
- Pain during sex
- Menstrual changes
“While these symptoms are common and may be caused by something other than ovarian cancer, I advise women to take them seriously,” said Dr. Chu. “A woman knows what is normal for her own body. If her symptoms don’t seem normal and last for two weeks or longer, she should bring them to her doctor’s attention.”
To learn more about cancer risk and resources, visit FoxChase.org. Fox Chase offers a Risk Assessment Program for individuals and families concerned about their risk for certain types of cancer.