Ovarian Cancer: Reducing Your Risk

Know the signs and listen to your body.

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Legacy doctor and patient talk about ovarian cancer

What you need to know

Ovarian cancer develops from a woman’s ovaries and can grow and spread. There are several types of ovarian cancer, including epithelial (the most common form), germ cell and stromal cell (which is very rare).

  • Epithelial tumors begin in the outer surface of the ovary.
  • Germ cell tumors begin in the cells that produce eggs.
  • Stromal cell tumors begin in the tissue that holds the ovary together.

About 85 to 90 percent of malignant ovarian cancers are epithelial. Less than 2 percent of ovarian tumors are germ cell and less than 1 percent of are stromal cell.
Hereditary ovarian cancer makes up about 20 percent of all cases.

The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are more subtle than other female cancers, so it’s important to listen to your body and have regular talks with your health care provider. 

While there is no regular screening for ovarian cancer, your doctor can conduct tests if you notice any of the signs and symptoms below. These can be signs of other common problems, but it’s important not to ignore them. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Back and pelvic pain
  • Stomach issues (discomfort, bloating, swelling, loss of appetite, upset stomach, gas or fullness)
  • Diarrhea, constipation or frequent urination
  • Vaginal bleeding or irregular periods

Ovarian cancer risk factors

There are many risk factors that can affect your chance of developing ovarian cancer, including:

  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy history
  • Use of estrogen replacement therapy or fertility drugs
  • Family or personal history and genetic syndromes
  • Endometriosis

Smart choices

Every woman should know about the risk factors for ovarian cancer. Some you can’t change, such as family history and age. However, you have control over some suspected causes, issues and choices.

Here are a few ways to reduce your risk:

  • Manage weight
  • Use birth control pills for several years. Note, this can cause other risks.
  • Ask about genetic counseling, especially if you have a family history of ovarian, breast, colon or uterine cancer. If a genetic risk is found, there are ways that you can cut your risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), women who have given birth or have breastfed their babies for a year or more may be at a lower risk for ovarian cancer. Certain operations, like having your “tubes tied” (tubal ligation), ovaries removed or a hysterectomy, can also reduce risk.

Screening information

Unlike some other cancers, there is no way to screen for ovarian cancer. By being aware of your body and risk factors, you can work with your doctor if you experience symptoms that don’t seem normal. Then, your doctor can perform tests to find out if cancer may be causing those problems.

Your provider may start with a physical and pelvic exam. Additional tests that are sometimes required may include:

  • Ultrasound
  • Blood tests to check certain protein levels

If any of these tests show signs of cancer, it's likely the health care provider will do a biopsy.

Risk-reducing surgery

Research indicates ovarian cancer may begin in the fallopian tubes. That’s why the Legacy Cancer Institute recommends certain women have their fallopian tubes removed to reduce the risk of future ovarian cancer. This procedure may be recommended for women past childbearing age, who are having a hysterectomy or tubal ligation (“tubes tied”), as well as those with a strong family history or BRCA1 gene mutation. Learn about this procedure.

Schedule your appointment

If you have noticed any symptoms that have you concerned about ovarian cancer or if you have not had a regular annual visit, contact your provider. If you don’t have one, find a primary care doctor or gynecologist.