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Most women have one or more risk factors for ovarian cancer. But most of the common factors only slightly increase your risk, so they only partly explain the frequency of the disease. So far, what is known about risk factors has not translated into practical ways to prevent most cases of ovarian cancer.
There are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing the most common type of ovarian cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer. Much less is known about ways to lower the risk of developing germ cell and stromal tumors of the ovaries, so this information does not apply to those types. It is important to realize that some of these strategies lower your risk only slightly, while others lower it much more. Some strategies are easily followed, and others require surgery. If you are concerned about your risk of ovarian cancer, talk to your health care professionals. They can help you consider these ideas as they apply to your own situation.
Some risk factors for ovarian cancer, like getting older or having a family history, cannot be changed. But women might be able to lower their risk slightly by avoiding other risk factors, for example, by staying at a healthy weight, or not taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause. See Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer to learn more.
Using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) decreases the risk of developing ovarian cancer for average risk women and BRCA mutation carriers , especially among women who use them for several years. Women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with women who never used oral contraceptives. Still, birth control pills do have some serious risks and side effects such as slightly increasing breast cancer risk. Women considering taking these drugs for any reason should first discuss the possible risks and benefits with their doctor.
Both tubal ligation and hysterectomy may reduce the chance of developing certain types of ovarian cancer, but experts agree that these operations should only be done for valid medical reasons -- not for their effect on ovarian cancer risk.
If you are going to have a hysterectomy for a valid medical reason and you have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer, you may want to consider having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) as part of that procedure.
Even if you don’t have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, some doctors recommend that the ovaries be removed with the uterus if a woman has already gone through menopause or is close to menopause. If you are older than 40 and you are going to have a hysterectomy, you should discuss the potential risks and benefits of having your ovaries removed with your doctor.
Another option for average risk women who do not wish to have their ovaries removed because they don’t want to lose ovarian function (and go through menopause early) is to have just the fallopian tubes removed (a bilateral salpingectomy) along with the uterus (a hysterectomy). They may choose to have their ovaries removed later. This has not been studied as well as removing both the ovaries and fallopian tubes at the same time, but there is enough information that it may be considered an option to reduce ovarian cancer risk in average risk women.
If your family history suggests that you (or a close relative) might have a syndrome linked with a high risk of ovarian cancer, you might want to consider genetic counseling and testing. During genetic counseling (by a genetic counselor or other health care professional with training in genetic risk evaluation), your personal medical and family history is reviewed. This can help predict whether you are likely to have one of the gene mutations associated with an increased ovarian cancer risk.
The counselor will also discuss the benefits and potential drawbacks of genetic testing with you. Genetic testing can help determine if you or members of your family carry certain gene mutations that cause a high risk of ovarian cancer. Still, the results are not always clear, and a genetic counselor can help you sort out what the results mean to you.
For some women with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, knowing they do not have a mutation that increases their ovarian cancer risk can be a great relief for them and their children. Knowing that you do have such a mutation can be stressful, but many women find this information very helpful in making important decisions about certain prevention strategies for them and their children. See Genetics and Cancer to learn more.
Using oral contraceptives is one way that high risk women (women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations) can reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer. But birth control pills can increase breast cancer risk in women with or without these mutations. This increased risk appears highest while women are actively taking birth control pills but can continue even after stopping them. Research is continuing to find out more about the risks and benefits of oral contraceptives for women at high ovarian and breast cancer risk.
Tubal ligation may also effectively reduce the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. Usually this type of surgery is not done alone and is typically done for reasons other than ovarian cancer prevention.
Sometimes a woman may want to consider having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer before cancer is even suspected. If the ovaries are removed to prevent ovarian cancer, the surgery is called risk-reducing or prophylactic. Generally, salpingo-oophorectomy may be recommended for high-risk women after they have finished having children. This operation lowers ovarian cancer risk a great deal but does not entirely eliminate it. That’s because some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer already have a cancer at the time of surgery. These cancers can be so small that they are only found when the ovaries and fallopian tubes are looked at in the lab after they are removed. Also, women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations have an increased risk of primary peritoneal carcinoma. Although the risk is low, this cancer can still develop after the ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed.
The risk of fallopian tube cancer is also increased in women with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. Sometimes early fallopian tube cancers are found unexpectedly when the fallopian tubes are removed as a part of a risk-reducing surgery. In fact, some cancers that were thought to be ovarian or primary peritoneal cancers may have actually started in the fallopian tubes. That is why experts recommend that women at high risk of ovarian cancer who are having their ovaries removed should have their fallopian tubes completely removed as well (salpingo-oophorectomy).
Research has shown that premenopausal women who have BRCA gene mutations and have had their ovaries removed reduce their risk of breast cancer as well as their risk of ovarian cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is reduced by 85% to 95%, and the risk of breast cancer cut by 50% or more.
Some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to BRCA gene mutations feel that having their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed is not right for them. Often doctors recommend that those women have screening tests to try to find ovarian cancer early.
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Brohet RM, Goldgar DE, Easton DF, et al. Oral contraceptives and breast cancer risk in the international BRCA1/2 carrier cohort study: A report from EMBRACE, GENEPSO, GEO-HEBON, and the IBCCS Collaborating Group. J Clin Oncol. 2007;25:3831-3836.
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Committee on the State of the Science in Ovarian Cancer Research; Board on Health Care Services; Institute of Medicine; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Ovarian Cancers: Evolving Paradigms in Research and Care. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Apr 25. 3, Prevention and Early Detection. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK367614/
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Moorman, Patricia G., et al. "Oral contraceptives and risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer among high-risk women: a systematic review and meta-analysis." J Clin Oncol 2013; 31 (33): 4188-98.
Morgan M, Boyd J, Drapkin R, Seiden MV. Ch 89 – Cancers Arising in the Ovary. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Lichter AS, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2014: 1592.
Last Revised: April 11, 2018