- What are risk factors?
- Family history
- Other ovarian cancer risks
- Protection factors
- Other frequently asked questions about risk
7,300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK each year. The risk of developing ovarian cancer in the course of their lifetime for the general population of women is two per cent. However, some women have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. All women should be aware of the risk factors and of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
This page gives information about the risk and protection factors for developing ovarian cancer. It is not intended to provide information about risk or prevention of ovarian cancer returning for women already diagnosed.
It is worth noting that nine out of 10 cases of ovarian cancer are a type called epithelial ovarian cancer and the risk factors detailed below are specific to this type of cancer. Find out more about types of ovarian cancer.
A risk factor is something that can increase your chances of developing a cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors although there are some risks associated with more than one cancer.
"When you know the risk, you're empowered to make choices to reduce that risk. It’s not about scaring people, it’s about giving them the chance to be realistic."
There are a number of possible causes of ovarian cancer but these are not yet fully understood. The most important risk factors are age and a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
As with most cancers the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as a woman gets older. Women over the age of 50 have a higher risk, and most cases of ovarian cancer occur in women who have already gone through the menopause. More than half the cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed are women over 65 years.
Although it is not common for younger women to get ovarian cancer, there are instances of ovarian cancer in pre-menopausal women; 1000 women under the age of 50 develop ovarian cancer every year which is why it is important that all women should be aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. This is especially important if women have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
80 – 85 per cent of ovarian cancer cases are 'sporadic'. This means they are one-offs, not inherited and close female relatives face no significant increase in their risk of developing the disease themselves. This is important to remember, as it can be worrying if a close family member is affected by ovarian cancer. In most cases women can be reassured.
The remaining 15 – 20 per cent of cases are believed to be caused by an inherited faulty (or mutated) gene, which is often the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Women who inherit a mutated copy of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene (BReast CAncer 1 and 2) have a much higher risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer than the general population.
There are some other genes which have also been linked to ovarian cancer such as RAD51C and RAD51D, STK11, BRIP1 (FABCJ) and those linked to Lynch Syndrome (also known as hereditary non polyposis colorectal cancer, HNPCC). The chance of developing cancer of the stomach, liver, kidney, bladder, skin and brain can also be increased by having a mutation in one of the Lynch Syndrome genes.
If there are two or more cases of ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer on either your mother or father’s side of the family, you should speak to your GP who will offer you more information about your level of risk. Your GP may then refer you to a genetic counsellor to help you decide whether or not to undergo genetic testing to see if you carry a mutation in a gene such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 which may increase your risk of developing ovarian or breast cancer. Your genetic counsellor and specialist team will support you through this process and help you to understand your risk and offer advice on risk management options.
For more detailed information on these genes, issues around genetic testing, and risk managing options, visit our pages on hereditary ovarian cancer or read our guide Genetic testing and hereditary ovarian cancer.
Media stories sometimes appear to demonstrate links between the risk of ovarian cancer and various activities, foods or physical traits. Often when examined closely the increase in risk is very small, or evidence is limited:
There is a slight increased risk of developing ovarian cancer for an obese person. For an obese person without a family history, a 2014 study found that their lifetime risk increases from 2 per cent to 2.24 per cent. This study found that women with a body mass index (BMI) above 28 seem to have a slightly higher risk of developing the disease. This supports earlier work which indicated that a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. You can calculate your BMI here.
Using talcum powder:
Various studies have shown a link between using talcum powder between the legs and ovarian cancer. The talcum powder could possibly travel into the vagina, through the cervix and into the womb. Once in the womb it could then possibly reach the fallopian tubes and then the ovaries. The powder could then cause irritation and over a period of time cause cancerous changes to the cells of the ovaries. We would therefore generally advise against using talcum powder on this area of the body. However it is important to note that the increased risk is very small. For someone without a family history of ovarian cancer the lifetime risk of developing the disease is two percent. Or put another way four women out of two hundred. For those that used talcum powder it could be five in two hundred.
Use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT):
Taking HRT increases a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer by 40 per cent compared to a woman who has never taken HRT. To put this in context, the lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is one in fifty (two per cent) and a 2015 study shows that five years use of HRT, starting at around 50 years of age, would result in around one additional case of ovarian cancer per 1,000 users of HRT. However, this small increase in risk needs to be carefully weighed against the overall benefits of taking HRT and should be discussed with your GP. It is also important to note that the additional risk of ovarian cancer reduces again five years after stopping taking HRT.
There is evidence to suggest that women with endometriosis have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The level of this risk fluctuates from study to study and seems to be associated with certain types of ovarian cancer such as clear cell and endometrioid epithelial ovarian cancer. However, very many more women have endometriosis than are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and so having endometriosis need not necessarily be a cause for concern.
Smoking can increase the risk of certain types of ovarian cancer. Approximately three per cent of some types of ovarian cancer seem to be linked to exposure to tobacco smoke. Other types of ovarian cancer are not associated with smoking.
Research has shown that diabetics have an increased risk of 20 – 25 per cent compared with non-diabetics of developing ovarian cancer. Additionally the risk may be slightly higher in diabetics who use insulin as opposed to diet or tablet controlled diabetics.
What are protection factors?
These are factors which may reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, it is important to consider the other risks which may be associated with them, and to remember that whilst they may lower the risk, they won’t prevent you from developing ovarian cancer so continue to be vigilant about symptoms.
The contraceptive pill:
The combined contraceptive pill is known to almost half the risk of ovarian cancer if taken for 10 years or more. However, you and your GP need to weigh up the benefits and other possible health risks of taking the combined contraceptive pill.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding:
These combine to reduce the chance of developing ovarian cancer but they do not guarantee that you will not develop ovarian cancer. It is recognised that an increased number of ovulatory cycles raises the risk of ovarian cancer and conversely a decreased number of cycles reduces the risk. A woman who has multiple pregnancies and breastfeeds will not ovulate (produce eggs) as much during her lifetime. This is because during pregnancy the ovaries do not ovulate and because breast feeding delays the start of ovulation following a pregnancy. These combine to reduce the risk.
Hysterectomy and/or having your tubes tied:
Some women opt to have their fallopian tubes tied because they do not want any more children – this is called sterilisation. It is known to reduce ovarian cancer risk. Previously it was also thought that women who had had a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the womb) had a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer – however the benefits of this are now unclear and depend on factors such as the age you have the surgery. Having a hysterectomy AND having the ovaries removed is known to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer but women should weigh up the benefits and risks associated with having ovaries removed with their doctor
Do ovarian cysts increase the risk of ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cysts are very common and can affect women of any age. They are more frequent in women of childbearing age because they are linked to ovulation. Very often a cyst develops and disappears without the woman even knowing that she had one. These cysts are not known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer. However, because there is a slightly higher risk of older women developing ovarian cancer current guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology recommend that post-menopausal women with a cyst should be monitored with a CA125 blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound (TVU).
Does polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) increase the risk of ovarian cancer?
Polycystic ovary syndrome affects millions of women worldwide; however, at this stage there is no strong evidence to suggest that having PCOS increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Read more about PCOS here.
Can any specific diet reduce my risk of ovarian cancer?
A good diet and regular exercise can reduce your risk slightly, as obese women have a slightly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Including vegetables with low cholesterol in your diet such as broccoli, cabbage and onions may also be beneficial. There has been a variety of research to try to understand if there is any link between different types of diet and ovarian cancer but so far this research has been inconclusive.
Is there a link between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ovarian cancer?
Symptoms of IBS are very similar to ovarian cancer and include tummy pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Some women with ovarian cancer are misdiagnosed with IBS. It’s important to note that IBS very rarely presents for the first time in women over the age of 50 so women over this age with these symptoms should be given appropriate tests for ovarian cancer.
Will having IVF increase my risk of ovarian cancer?
Recent news reports have suggested that IVF increases the risk of ovarian cancer by one-third. However, the actual increase is very small, with a risk of two in 2000 increasing to three in 2000. The relevant study suggested that the small increase in risk may not be due to the IVF treatment directly but potentially due to the underlying biological causes of infertility on the female side. More research needs to be undertaken in order to understand this better.
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Last reviewed: December 2016
Next review: November 2019