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Ovarian Cancer Prevention (PDQ®): Prevention - Patient Information [NCI]

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Ovarian Cancer Prevention

What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerous condition or to keep cancer from starting.

General Information About Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the ovaries.

The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries make eggs and female hormones (chemicals that control the way certain cells or organs work in the body).
Anatomy of the female reproductive system; drawing shows the uterus, myometrium (muscular outer layer of the uterus), endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina.
Anatomy of the female reproductive system. The organs in the female reproductive system include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The uterus has a muscular outer layer called the myometrium and an inner lining called the endometrium.

Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer of the female reproductive system.

Since 1992, the number of new cases of ovarian cancer has stayed about the same. The number of deaths from ovarian cancer has slightly decreased since 2002.

It is hard to find ovarian cancer early. Early ovarian cancer may not cause any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, ovarian cancer is often advanced.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about ovarian cancer:

  • Ovarian Cancer Screening
  • Ovarian Epithelial Cancer Treatment
  • Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors Treatment
  • Ovarian Low Malignant Potential Tumors Treatment
  • Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian Cancer Prevention

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

The following risk factors may increase the risk of ovarian cancer:

Family history of ovarian cancer

A woman whose mother or sister had ovarian cancer has an increased risk of ovarian cancer. A woman with two or more relatives with ovarian cancer also has an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Inherited risk

The risk of ovarian cancer is increased in women who have inherited certain changes in the following genes:

  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
  • Genes that are linked to hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome).

Hormone replacement therapy

The use of estrogen -only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause increases the risk of ovarian cancer. The longer estrogen replacement therapy is used, the greater the risk may be. It is not clear whether the risk of ovarian cancer is increased with the use of HRT that has both estrogen and progestin.

Fertility drugs

The use of fertility drugs may be linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Talc

The use of talc may increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Talcum powder dusted on the perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus) may reach the ovaries by entering the vagina.

Obesity

Having too much body fat, especially during the teenage years, is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Being obese is linked to an increased risk of death from ovarian cancer.

Height

Being taller than 5 feet 8 inches is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

The following protective factors may decrease the risk of ovarian cancer:

Oral contraceptives

The use of oral contraceptives ("the pill") lowers ovarian cancer risk. The longer oral contraceptives are used, the lower the risk may be. The decrease in risk may last up to 25 years after a woman has stopped using oral contraceptives.

Taking oral contraceptives increases the risk of blood clots. This risk is higher in women who also smoke. There may be a slight increase in a woman's risk of breast cancer during the time she is taking oral contraceptives. This risk decreases over time.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Pregnancy and breastfeeding are linked to a decreased risk of ovarian cancer. Ovulation stops or occurs less often in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some experts believe that women who ovulate less often have a decreased risk of ovarian cancer.

Bilateral tubal ligation or hysterectomy

The risk of ovarian cancer is decreased in women who have a bilateral tubal ligation (surgery to close both fallopian tubes) or a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus).

Prophylactic oophorectomy

Some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer may choose to have a prophylactic oophorectomy (surgery to remove both ovaries when there are no signs of cancer). This includes women who have inherited certain changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes or in the genes linked to hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC). (See the PDQ summary on Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer for more information.)

It is very important to have a cancer risk assessment and counseling before making this decision. These and other factors should be discussed:

  • Early menopause: The drop in estrogen levels caused by removing the ovaries can cause early menopause. Symptoms of menopause include the following:
    • Hot flashes.
    • Night sweats.
    • Trouble sleeping.
    • Mood changes.
    • Decreased sex drive.
    • Heart disease.
    • Vaginal dryness.
    • Osteoporosis (decreased bone density).
    These symptoms may not be the same in all women. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be needed to lessen these symptoms.
  • Risk of ovarian cancer in the peritoneum: Women who have had a prophylactic oophorectomy continue to have a small risk of ovarian cancer in the peritoneum (thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the abdomen). This may occur if ovarian cancer cells had already spread to the peritoneum before the surgery or if some ovarian tissue remains after surgery.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent ovarian cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for ovarian cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.

Changes to This Summary (12 / 06 / 2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about ovarian cancer prevention. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."

The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Ovarian Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/ovarian/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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Last Revised: 2013-12-06


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