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Ovarian Cancer

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Ovarian Cancer: Who is at Risk?
By Sandra Ray, Staff Writer

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 womanís doctor in the event that she underestimates the risks. Caregivers can assist by being vigilant in reporting symptoms to a womanís doctor that may otherwise go overlooked and could point to reasons for further testing.

Hereditary Factors

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 fatherís 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 personís 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 womanís 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 ovarian cancer.

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 womanís health profile.

Environmental Factors:

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 Coalition ( uses this slogan: Ovarian CancerÖit whispers, so listen. Paying attention to a womanís 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 isnít 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 involved.


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