6 Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors You Should Know, According To An Oncologist
Ovarian cancer is one of the less talked-about women's health conditions, but it's important to know how to assess and reduce your risk. Doctors have called ovarian cancer the "silent" killer because it often first presents in advanced stages, as people don't spot the early signs, Julia A. Smith, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center and director of the Lynne Cohen Cancer Screening and Prevention Clinic for High Risk Women, tells Bustle. However, as more information comes out about ovarian cancer's initial signs and risk factors, people have the opportunity to catch it in the early stages, when it's highly curable.
"There tend to be non-specific symptoms," Dr. Smith tells Bustle. "So, if [someone] develops abdominal bloating, can't close her waste band or her belt and thinks that's due to weight gain, or is having constipation and GI symptoms, she should go to her doctor. Everyone has those from time to time, but if they persist, she should go to her doctor. If the doctor doesn't take that seriously, she should insist they do, and if they still don't, she should find another doctor."
Ovarian cancer is pretty rare, Dr. Smith says, but it's more common among people with certain risk factors. Here are some ovarian cancer risk factors to be aware of so that you can get diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
The biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer is genetics, Dr. Smith says, and the best way to know if you're genetically at risk is to look at your family. A family history of ovarian cancer is a warning sign, but abnormally high rates of other cancers can be as well. "If they see a family history that's suggestive in any way of a possible hereditary cancer syndrome, they should bring that to their doctor's attention," Dr. Smith says.
Dr. Smith doesn't recommend commercial DNA tests to assess your risk because they're not accurate enough. However, there are tests a doctor can run if they feel your family history puts you at risk for ovarian cancer. If you test positive for genes correlated with ovarian cancer, though, that doesn't mean you'll get it; it just means you have an elevated risk and may want to take precautions to avoid it.
2. Whether Or Not You're Taking Birth Control
Hormonal birth control decreases your risk of ovarian cancer by about 40 percent because it suppresses follicle development, Dr. Smith explains. "The whole point of the ovaries is to make follicles every month," she says. "If the ovaries are basically not going through that repeatedly, month in and month out, that decreases the risk of ovarian cancer."
Birth control also has a number of side effects, so this shouldn't be the only factor determining whether you go on it. But if you have a genetic risk of ovarian cancer, birth control can help reduce it.
3. The Health Of Your Fallopian Tubes
"Ovarian cancers start not in the ovaries specifically but in the fallopian tubes," Dr. Smith says. Therefore, some people who are at risk for ovarian cancer opt to get their fallopian tubes removed to reduce their risk. This will leave your ovaries intact, and you can still get pregnant via IVF.
The most effective risk reduction strategy is removing both the fallopian tubes and the ovaries, Dr. Smith says. However, ovaries play an important role in hormone regulation and reproduction, so you don't want to do this unless it's necessary.
4. Age Of First Pregnancy
Those who get pregnant before 30 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, Dr. Smith says. It's unclear why, but it likely has something to do with hormone production. Pregnancy should not be a prevention strategy, since becoming pregnant before you're ready leads to problems of its own, but knowing this can help you assess your risk.
5. Chemical Exposure
"The best thing to do is try to stay as close to the natural biology and state as possible," Dr. Smith says. "The more chemicals we put in our body and expose ourselves and our embryos and fetuses to... the more risks we end up incurring." It's not totally clear what chemicals increase ovarian cancer risk specifically, but Dr. Smith recommends avoiding cigarettes.
The same dietary guidelines typically recommended to optimize general health will help lower ovarian cancer risk. This includes eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, minimizing animal fat and red meat, and getting enough fiber and whole grains, Dr. Smith says. It's also helpful to exercise for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week and drink alcohol in moderation.
The good news is, "we've made enormous strides in early detection of elevated risk because of genetic abnormalities, and we are saving innumerable, countless lives because of that," Dr. Smith says. "There are many women in whom we end up detecting an early, curable stage of ovarian cancer because they find out they're at risk and go for a risk-reducing surgery to remove their ovaries, and early ovarian cancer is found, and we can usually save those people's lives."
If you're experiencing any symptoms of ovarian cancer or have a family history that may put you at risk, talk to your doctor, as early detection and cure are possible.