Ovarian cancer has often been called the “silent killer.” Although experts are making progress in identifying ovarian cancer symptoms, early warning signs can be vague—like abdominal and pelvic pain, bloating, urinary frequency, feeling full quickly while eating, fatigue, upset stomach—and hard to differentiate from our body’s usual quirks. Plus, in many cases, by the time we have identifiable symptoms, the cancer may have progressed to a later, harder-to-treat stage. That’s why it’s important to know the ovarian cancer risk factors that may affect you. Read on to reduce as many risk factors as you can, then keep a watchful eye on the symptoms above if you have risk factors outside of your control.
You’re Not on Birth Control
On the pill? It’s a good thing. First, birth control suppresses ovulation, lowering your estrogen exposure while you’re on it. “In general, the less estrogen a woman is exposed to in her lifetime, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer,” says Lindsay Avner, the founder of Bright Pink, an organization aimed at educating women on their breast and ovarian health
In addition, recent research is starting to show that progesterone may also be protective against breast cancer, leading to cancer-cell death. “Taking birth control pills in your 20s and 30s is the most effective lifestyle choice you can make to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer,” Avner says. “Taking birth control pills for five years—does not need to be consecutive—can slash risk by 50 percent.” Also when it’s time, and you’re sure you’re finished with childbearing, having your tubes tied can be protective against cancer.
You’re Over 60
More than half of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in women over 60; the older you are, the higher your estrogen exposure, and the higher your risk. “It’s rare for someone under 50 to be diagnosed, but it’s not unheard of,” says Nimesh Nagarsheth, MD, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and member of the gynecologic-oncologist rock band N.E.D., which raises funds and awareness for gynecologic cancers.
Your Mom Had Ovarian Cancer
If your mom, your grandmother, your aunt, or your sister has had ovarian cancer, you should be on the lookout. “Women with a first-degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer have three times higher risk of developing the disease,” says Avner. “Sometimes this is because mutated genes have been passed down to you from your mother or father.” It’s not just BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 that affects risk either. Other gene mutations include PALB2, MLH1, TP53, PTEN, STK11, CDH1, CHEK2, and ATM. If cancer runs in the family, you can ask your doctor about genetic testing and counseling.
You Have a Mutation in These Genes
“The BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations significantly increase your risk of ovarian cancer individually,” says Nargarsheth. Commonly referred to as “breast cancer 1” and “breast cancer 2,” these genes normally stop breast and ovarian cancer cells from dividing rapidly. Inheriting errors in the copies of these genes can raise your risk of ovarian cancer by 39 percent if you have the BRCA-1 mutation and 11 to 17 percent if you have the BRCA-2 mutation. Again, genetic counseling can help you learn your options to reduce cancer risk, like enhanced and earlier screening or prophylactic surgery.
You’ve Never Been Pregnant
According to Nargarsheth, each pregnancy lowers your odds of ovarian cancer. “With more recent research, we’re realizing the progesterone component is probably protective against cancer,” he explains. Progesterone, a hormone produced by the ovaries to maintain the health of the uterus, regulate your cycle, and bring a baby to term, peaks during pregnancy. Science is beginning to show that the hormone also seems to induce cancer-cell death. You also stop ovulating, which is likely lowering your risk as well.
You’ve Never Breastfed
Forgoing formula and deciding to breastfeed your children may also be helpful in preventing ovarian cancer. “Breastfeeding for one to two years lowers your risk for both breast and ovarian cancer, and it doesn’t need to be consecutive,” Avner says. “Like in pregnancy, you’re less likely to ovulate while you’re breastfeeding, thus reducing your risk of ovarian cancer.”
You’re Low on D
“Having vitamin D deficiency has been shown to increase your risk,” Avner explains. “The sun is our best source of vitamin D, but you can also get it from certain foods, such as eggs and fatty fish like salmon.” Checking for vitamin D deficiency just takes a quick blood test at the doctor’s office, and you can supplement if necessary.
Smoking has been linked to a higher risk (double!) of a type of ovarian cancer called mucinous ovarian cancer, according to a Gynecologic Oncology review. Time to quit, already.
Remember what we said about increased estrogen being an ovarian cancer risk factor? Well, fat cells produce estrogen, putting you at a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Ready to drop pounds for your health? Here are the 10 Best Exercises for Weight Loss.
A Final Note…
Of course, some of these risk factors may be out of your control. But it’s important to know your risk and get annual checkups with your doc, says Avner. “Your doctor may want to keep you on the pill longer, do a pelvic exam every year, or so on.” (You can also check your risk using Bright Pink’s Assess Your Risk tool.)
And if you have common symptoms characteristic of ovarian cancer for one or two weeks, like abdominal and pelvic pain, bloating, urinary frequency or urgency, feeling full quickly while eating, fatigue, upset stomach, pain with intercourse, back pain, or constipation, see your doctor. “Ask your doctor, ‘Could this be my ovaries?’” If a symptom deviates from what’s normal for your body, it’s worth your time getting it checked out.