How Does Ovarian Cancer Affect Women of Ashkenazi Jewish Descent?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2021

Anyone with ovaries can develop ovarian cancer. However, some groups of people are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer and can benefit from extra attention regarding their risk. Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are one such group.

Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are of Jewish heritage with European ancestry, typically Eastern European. Certain genetic diseases and genetic mutations are more common in this group. This is why heredity can be important in screening for and managing certain conditions, including advanced ovarian cancer.

Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and BRCA mutations

When mutations occur in a gene, this can increase the risk of certain cancers, diseases, or conditions. Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but not everyone has a mutation of either of these genes. The mutation is what causes an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, along with other cancers.

Approximately 1 out of every 40 women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent has a BRCA gene mutation. BRCA mutations increase the risk of developing breast cancer at a young age, as well as for developing ovarian cancer and other cancers.1

If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and your mother or father has a BRCA gene mutation, you have a 50 percent chance of having the same mutation. If you have a BRCA gene mutation, this does not mean you will definitely get breast or ovarian cancer, just that you are at higher risk of developing it than the general population.1

BRCA mutations and ovarian cancer

BRCA gene mutations increase a person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. About 30 out of every 100 women with a BRCA mutation will develop ovarian cancer by the time they are 70 years of age. This is in sharp contrast to women without a BRCA mutation: fewer than 1 out of every 100 women without a BRCA mutation in the United States will develop ovarian cancer by the age of 70.1

In the Ashkenazi Jewish population, about 29 to 41 percent of ovarian cancer is thought to be related to mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Only 10 percent of ovarian cancer is related to these mutations in those of non-Ashkenazi Jewish descent.2

Things to consider

Genetic testing and counseling may be recommended if you are an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. This is especially true if:1

  • You have a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) who has been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer
  • Two or more second-degree relatives (grandmother, aunt, or niece) on the same side of your family have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer. These can be relatives on either your mother’s or your father’s side of the family.

If you have a BRCA or other genetic mutation, you can talk with your doctors about steps you can take to help reduce your chances of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Your doctor can also help you create a plan to monitor and screen for other cancers you might be at risk for, like colon cancer.

If you have a BRCA mutation, paying attention to your body and its symptoms can alert you to possible signs of ovarian cancer as early as possible. If you have signs or symptoms of ovarian cancer, you can make a note and talk with your doctor, keeping your family history of BRCA or other genetic mutations in mind. This might help you find ovarian cancer in its earlier stages when it is most treatable.

If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and do not have family members who have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, talk with your doctor about whether you should get genetic testing or counseling for possible BRCA mutations and your risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

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