What are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?

Anyone with ovaries can develop ovarian cancer. Doctors do not know exactly who will develop ovarian cancer and who will not. However, they do know that some risk factors may increase a person’s chance of developing the condition.

Risk factors vary from person to person. One person with only 1 risk factor may develop ovarian cancer, while someone else with multiple risk factors may develop the disease. Some women may develop ovarian cancer with no risk factors at all.

Having 1 or more risk factors for ovarian cancer does not mean you will get ovarian cancer. It just makes it more likely that you may develop the condition. Being aware of your risk factors for ovarian cancer can be helpful when monitoring symptoms, talking with your doctor and trying to get a diagnosis.

Genetic mutations

The biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer is a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. The BRCA genes cause 10 to 15 percent of all ovarian cancers. Women of Eastern European descent and Ashkenazi Jewish descent are more likely to have a BRCA mutation.1

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Since the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are tied to both breast and ovarian cancers, women who have had breast cancer have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.1

An inherited syndrome called Lynch Syndrome is also known to increase a person’s risk of ovarian cancer. Lynch Syndrome is also called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). Women with Lynch Syndrome have about a 12 percent lifetime chance of developing ovarian cancer.1

Family history

Having a family history of ovarian cancer on either side of the family is a strong risk factor.

The average lifetime risk for a woman with no known hereditary risk factors is about 1.4 percent. However, for a woman with a first-degree relative with the disease, it is about 5 percent. First-degree relatives include your mother, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, or sisters. The risk also increases with the more relatives you have with ovarian cancer.1,2

A person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is also higher if they have a family history of certain cancers, including:1

  • Colon cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Breast cancer

Age

While all women with ovaries are at risk for developing ovarian cancer, the diagnosis rates are highest in women ages 55 to 64. The average age at diagnosis is 63 years old.1

Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. This does not mean younger women cannot develop the disease, only that your risk increases as you get older.1

Reproductive and menstrual history

A woman’s reproductive and menstrual history can impact her risk for ovarian cancer. Women who got their first period before the age of 12 or who went through menopause after the age of 50 have an increased risk for ovarian cancer.1

Other reproductive health factors also impact the risk for ovarian cancer. A woman is at increased risk if she:1,2

  • Has not given birth to any children
  • Gave birth to her first child after the age of 30
  • Has never take oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
  • Has endometriosis
  • Has infertility, regardless of whether she has or has not used fertility drugs

Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy

Studies have found that women who use a combination of estrogen and progestin hormone therapy for menopause for 5 or more years have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.1

Some studies have also found that women who take estrogen without progesterone for 10 or more years may also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.2

Obesity

Studies have found a link between obesity and ovarian cancer. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. One study found that women between the ages of 50 and 71 who were obese and had not taken hormones after menopause were 80 percent more likely to develop ovarian cancer.1

Obesity may also have a negative impact on the overall survival of women with ovarian cancer.3

Things to consider

If you are concerned about your risk factors and chances of developing ovarian cancer, talk with your doctor. Let them know your health history and your specific concerns. Together, you can come up with a plan to keep track of any symptoms, make healthy lifestyle choices, and schedule regular screenings and check-ups.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: May 2021