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Heredity and ovarian cancer

As with most cancers, no one knows exactly what causes ovarian cancer. But heredity is definitely a risk factor, although risk is greatest for women whose mother or sister had the disease. Other risk factors are related to your own health history. Things to consider:

  • Have you had breast cancer or benign breast disease?
  • Have you ever had colon or rectal cancer or polyps?
  • If you’ve reached menopause, did you menstruate for more than 40 years?
  • Have you never been pregnant or did your first pregnancy occur after age 30?
  • “Yes” answers to any of these questions may put you at increased risk for ovarian cancer.

Your risk of ovarian cancer is reduced if you have ever been pregnant, breastfed or taken birth-control pills. Why? One possible explanation is that ovarian-cancer risk increases every time a woman ovulates. Because women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or using oral contraceptives don’t ovulate for months at a time, the theory goes, their risk of ovarian cancer is reduced.

If you have any questions about ovarian cancer or would like a personal-risk assessment, call your healthcare provider. For most women, the best screening program for ovarian cancer is an annual pelvic exam.