Ovarian cancer 101: Prevalence, risk factors and what to know

Woman holding aching abdomen

Ovarian cancer ranks 5th out of all cancer deaths among females. And it’s more common than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. Yet it’s not always talked about as much as breast, lung or even cervical cancer.

“According to the American Cancer Society, a female’s risk of getting ovarian cancer at some point in her life is about 1 in 78,” says Dr. Edwin Thorpe, medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “While there is currently no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, there are a few things you and your provider can do that may lower your risk.”

Let’s start with the basics: What do ovaries do?

Dr. Thorpe: Ovaries are the main reproductive organ for females and located on either side of the uterus. Their main role is producing eggs that combine with sperm for fertilization. But they also function as a kind of reproductive-hormone factory.

Ovaries get signals from the adrenal glands and other organs to produce sex hormones:

  • Estrogen
  • Progesterone
  • Testosterone

Ovaries help with everything from breast development and period regulation to pregnancy support.

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What are the risk factors of ovarian cancer?

Dr. Thorpe: Common risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Family history/genetic mutations
  • History of other cancers (breast, uterine, colorectal)
  • European or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • Endometriosis
  • Never having given birth
  • Taking estrogen for 10+ years without progesterone

Dr. Thorpe: Age and heredity are the biggest risk factors. Roughly half of those diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older. When it comes to genetics, the BRCA gene increases the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. And having Lynch syndrome may also increase the risk.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Dr. Thorpe: The symptoms of ovarian cancer are nonspecific, which can make it difficult to diagnose early.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Vaginal bleeding that happens after menopause
  • Abnormal discharge

If your uterus is still intact, bleeding is more likely to be a uterine issue than an ovarian one. But if you experience any abnormal vaginal bleeding, see your doctor as soon as you can. If you experience bloating, pain or pressure in the pelvic area, back or abdomen, that may mean a problem has already spread.

Do you need proactive screenings for ovarian cancer?

Dr. Thorpe: Talk to your doctor for guidance. If you are getting a cervical cancer screening, that’s a good time to ask about ovarian cancer risk. If you have other risk factors, your doctor may want to check in more often via pelvic exam, ultrasound or possibly a CA125 blood test.

Is there anything you can do to decrease your risk of ovarian cancer?

Dr. Thorpe: There aren’t many things you can do to decrease your risk, other than looking out for unusual or persistent abdominal symptoms like:

  • Bloating
  • Pain
  • Feeling full or trouble eating
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge

And keeping your annual gynecologist appointments to review your health history is important.

In addition to that, you and your provider may consider:

  • Taking a break from hormone therapy after 5 years, whether you’re using it for contraception or treatment of menopausal symptoms.
  • Gynecologic surgery. If you already need a tubal ligation or hysterectomy for another reason and you have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer, your provider may recommend removing both ovaries and fallopian tubes to decrease your risk.
  • Breastfeeding for a year or more, which may offer a modest reduction in risk.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.