Deemed one of the most dangerous
gynecological cancers, ovarian cancer occurs in one in 58 women. The
American Cancer Society also reports that ovarian cancer is the
eighth most common cancer in women today and the fifth most deadly.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are, for the most part, silent until it
has spread beyond the ovaries into other areas of the body. By
examining the risk factors, women can personally assess their own
possibility of developing ovarian cancer. Caregivers too can be
prepared to help discuss ovarian cancer risks with a woman’s doctor
in the event that she underestimates the risks. Caregivers can
assist by being vigilant in reporting symptoms to a woman’s doctor
that may otherwise go overlooked and could point to reasons for
Some women are at risk because
of their family history. A close relative, such as a mother or
sister who develops breast cancer or ovarian cancer increases the
chances that a woman could have ovarian cancer later in life. Even
family members from the father’s side of the family can increase the
risk of ovarian cancer. A history of colorectal cancer on either
side of the family also increases the risk.
The breast cancer gene, BRCA1 or
BRCA2, can be passed from one family member to the next. If it
mutates, there is an extremely high risk of developing ovarian
cancer. Genetic testing or genetic counseling can examine whether or
not this mutation could have occurred. The American Cancer Society
reports that for women who have a mutated breast cancer genes, the
risk of developing ovarian cancer by age 70 increases by as much as
40 or 50 percent. By contrast, the risk to the average women without
this genetic mutation is approximately 2 percent. A similar mutation
in the gene for colorectal cancer can also increase the risk for
developing ovarian cancer.
Personal Risk Factors:
Several issues in a person’s own
health profile can put them at risk for developing ovarian cancer at
some point in their life. For example, ovarian cancer is more
prevalent in white women than in African American or Hispanic women.
A Jewish woman also faces a slightly higher chance of being
diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
A personal history of breast
cancer will increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer later in
life. It may be possible that the inherited mutated breast cancer
genes discussed previously are the culprits. Mutated genes, like the
ones for breast cancer or colorectal cancer, are not always
inherited though. Sometimes these genes mutate on their own as a
woman ages. Researchers have yet to link these acquired mutations to
ovarian cancer, though.
Obesity further increases the
risk that a woman will develop ovarian cancer, sometimes as much as
50 percent. Obesity has been linked to a myriad of other health
concerns, so it should be little surprise that it plays a role in
certain types of cancer. Some studies suggest that a diet high in
fat can increase the probability of ovarian cancer. Working with a
physician on a well-managed weight loss plan can reduce the risk of
these health issues.
The use of fertility drugs has
also been linked to an increase in ovarian cancer. The jury is still
out on this risk factor, however. Researchers from the University of
Pittsburgh failed to find a link between fertility treatments and
ovarian cancer development. These researchers, instead, claim that
one of the underlying causes of infertility (namely endometriosis)
is the actual reason for the ovarian cancer, not the fertility
treatment. With this in mind, women who are either considering
fertility drugs or who have already begun taking them should discuss
this risk with their personal physician to find out the best advice
for their overall health.
Age is a factor that a woman
cannot escape. While there are many younger women who are diagnosed
with ovarian cancer who do not exhibit any of the risk factors,
there is little denying the fact that women over age 50 are
diagnosed at higher rates than younger women. A woman past menopause
has a greater probability of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer,
and the American Cancer Society reports that half of the women
diagnosed are over age 63.
Finally, a woman’s personal
reproductive history plays a role in whether or not she has a
greater chance of developing ovarian cancer. The earlier a woman
begins menses (before age 12), has children or has children after
age 30, and starts menopause after age 50 has a great risk of
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
has been indicated as a risk factor in some studies, but not in
others. Some studies suggest that women who started taking estrogen
replacement after menopause and use it long-term face a greater
possibility of developing ovarian cancer. Other studies have not
born this out. There are many valid reasons for taking HRT, such as
decreased risk of heart disease, less risk of osteoporosis, not to
mention relief from menopausal symptoms. For these reasons and
others, a woman should weigh the benefits and concerns with her
doctor when making the decision to use or not to use HRT.
Researchers are still examining this risk in light of the benefits
it brings to a woman’s health profile.
A woman using talcum powder when
applied directly to the genital area or to sanitary napkins can
slightly increase the risk of ovarian cancer. While not every study
has found this connection, some researchers surmise that the risk
associated with talcum powder was greater 20 years ago when asbestos
was an ingredient in some of these powders. Modern day talcum
powders do not use asbestos, thus this could explain why some
researchers have not been able to firmly establish this link.
There are many women who will
still develop ovarian cancer even if none of these factors are
considered. As discussed previously, age itself is a factor and one
that no woman can prevent. Caregivers should discuss the
above-mentioned risks with their loved ones and with family
physicians to find out whether more testing is warranted.
The National Ovarian Cancer
uses this slogan: Ovarian Cancer…it whispers, so listen. Paying
attention to a woman’s body development and health concerns can do
more to diagnose ovarian cancer in the earliest stages than can
testing and attention to risk factors. When diagnosed and treated
earlier, a woman has better than 90 percent chance of surviving
ovarian cancer after 5 years. If the disease isn’t caught until its
later stages, the survival rate can drop to as low as 29 percent.
Caregivers play an important role in encouraging women to seek
treatment early, no matter what risk factors may or may not be
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