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June 2019

Are You At Risk for Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is the deadliest type of gynecologic cancer. That’s probably because it typically is not diagnosed until it has reached an advanced stage. But you can help protect yourself by knowing if you are at risk for this cancer and what symptoms to watch for.

Female doctor talking with older female patient

What puts you at risk?

The exact causes of ovarian cancer are unknown. But the following things may play a role:

  • Age. The odds of developing ovar­ian cancer increase over time. Women ages 63 and older account for half of all ovarian cancer cases.

  • Obesity. For women, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher is considered obese. These women may have a higher risk than women with lower BMIs.

  • Family history. Your risk is higher if you have a daughter, sister, or mother (first-degree relative) who has had ovarian cancer. The more relatives you have with this cancer, the higher your risk. A history of the disease in family members on your father’s side is also linked to a higher risk.

    • A family history of breast or colorectal cancer has also been linked to an increased risk for ovarian cancer. Women who have a family history of breast cancer sometimes opt to get checked for an inherited problem in their BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The problem in either gene is linked to a high risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

  • Personal history. Women who have had colorectal, uterine, or breast cancer may face a higher risk for ovarian cancer than those who have not had one of these other cancers.

  • Pregnancy. Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or never give birth have a higher risk. In fact, the more children women have, the less likely they are to get ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding may also lower your risk.

  • Medicines. According to some evidence, using estrogen-only hormone therapy after menopause may raise your risk.

Warning signs

Treatment works best when ovarian cancer is found early. But symptoms are often vague and may not show up until later stages of the cancer. Easy-to-overlook warning signs may include:

  • Stomach discomfort, such as pain or bloating

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or frequent urination

  • Feeling full quickly

  • Belly swelling with weight loss

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • Pain during intercourse

  • Fatigue

  • Back pain

Talk with your health care provider if you notice any of these symptoms.


Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/19/2019
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