September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, which means if you haven’t already, now is a better time than ever to learn the factors that may increase your risk for developing the disease and what you can do to potentially reduce that risk.
Risk factors increase a woman’s chance of getting ovarian cancer, but just because she was one or more doesn’t necessarily mean she will definitely develop the disease.
Here are the known factors that could increase a woman’s risk:
• Age — According to the American Cancer Society, risk increases with age. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause and half are found in women over 63 years or older.
• Obesity — Most studies comparing the relationship between obesity (defined as having a Body Mass Index higher than 30) and ovarian cancer found that being obese increases a woman’s risk for developing the disease.
• Reproductive History — Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or who never carry a pregnancy to term have an increased risk.
• Family History — A woman’s risk for developing ovarian cancer increases if her mother, sister or daughter develops the disease. “The risk also gets higher the more relatives you have with ovarian cancer. Increased risk for ovarian cancer can also come from your father's side,” the American Cancer Society points out. A family history of other types of cancers like colorectal and breast cancer has also been linked to an increased risk for ovarian cancer.
• Personal History of Breast Cancer — Having breast cancer may also increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer. “Some of the reproductive risk factors for ovarian cancer may also affect breast cancer risk. The risk of ovarian cancer after breast cancer is highest in those women with a family history of breast cancer,” the American Cancer Society notes.
Obviously, many of these factors are linked to genetics and cannot be changed, and while there’s no sure, proven way to prevent ovarian cancer, there are some things you can do to potentially decrease your risk.
1. Maintain a Healthy Weight
As previously noted, studies have shown a link between obesity and an increased risk for ovarian cancer, so maintaining a healthy weight may help to reduce your risk. Plus, keeping your weight at a healthy level through exercising and eating well promotes overall health and wellness and can reduce your risk for other chronic diseases.
2. Taking Oral Contraceptives
According to both the American Cancer Society and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), birth control pills have been shown to reduce a woman’s risk for developing ovarian cancer. The effect is stronger for women who use them for several years.
“Compared with women who never used oral contraceptive, those who used oral contraceptives for three years or more have about a 30 to 50 percent lower risk of developing ovarian cancer,” the NOCC notes. Additionally, the American Cancer Society says the reduced risk is seen even after three to six months of use and continues many years after use is stopped.
3. Breast Feeding and Pregnancy
The NOCC says having one or more children before age 25 may reduce a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer, and breastfeeding may offer an even further risk reduction.
4. Eat Well
The American Cancer Society points to a study that found women who followed a low-fat diet for at least four years had a lower risk for ovarian cancer. Additionally, some studies have shown that a diet including lots of vegetables helped to reduce a woman’s risk, but not all studies examining this factor came to the same conclusion.
Either way, there’s a large body of research has linked a wide range of positive health effects with a vegetable-rich diet, so including lots of plant-based foods in your meals is a good idea anyway.
From the American Cancer Society:
“The American Cancer Society recommends eating a variety of healthful foods, with an emphasis on plant sources. Eat at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day, as well as several servings of whole grain foods from plant sources such as breads, cereals, grain products, rice, pasta, or beans. Limit the amount of red meat and processed meats you eat. Even though the effect of these dietary recommendations on ovarian cancer risk remains uncertain, following them can help prevent several other diseases, including some other types of cancer.”
Furthermore, it’s important to understand the following facts: all women are at risk for developing ovarian cancer; there are some symptoms (but they can be vague, and may increase over time); early detection increases survival rates, but Pap tests do not detect ovarian cancer (currently there are no consistently reliable methods for screening, but the NOCC suggests pelvic exams, transvaginal sonography and CA-125 tests, especially for women at high risk) .
For the best possible advice, all women should consult their doctors.