Ovarian Cancer Prevention
The symptoms of ovarian cancer may be mistaken for other conditions, leading to late diagnosis of the disease. This is one of the reasons why ovarian cancer has lower survival rates than other cancers of the female reproductive system. Generally speaking, the earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the higher the likelihood of recovery.
Being aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer is very important, as is taking steps to reduce the risk of developing the condition. Though it may not be possible to prevent ovarian cancer, changing certain behaviors and taking appropriate actions, such as maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, may help to lower one’s risk.
Who is at higher risk of ovarian cancer?
- Being over 50
- Having a close relative who has had ovarian cancer or cancer of the breast, colon, uterus or rectum
- Having an inherited mutation in breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) or breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2) – this is particularly prevalent among Eastern European females and females of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
- Carrying genes linked to hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), known as Lynch syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
However, ovarian cancer can affect women of any age, even where none of the above risk factors are present. The following information is therefore broadly applicable to everyone.
If a woman’s personal or family medical history suggests a higher than average risk of developing ovarian cancer, they may be advised to undergo genetic counseling and testing. This can determine whether they have one of the gene mutations implicated in many cases of ovarian cancer. If these gene mutations are present, a number of approaches to minimize the risk may be recommended, including oral contraceptives, ovarian cancer screening and surgery.
A doctor will be able to advise whether genetic testing may be beneficial for a particular person, and refer them to a specialist if necessary.
Ovarian cancer prevention measures
A number of general and more specific strategies can be used to help decrease the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. While the lifestyle factors below are recommended for everyone, a doctor will be able to advise on which other approaches are necessary and appropriate for a particular person.
Taking the following steps may help to reduce a person’s risk of ovarian cancer:
- Going for regular check-ups with a gynecologist; a doctor specializing in the female reproductive system
- Avoiding the use of tobacco products
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Keeping physically active
- Managing stress
- Avoiding exposure to asbestos, e.g. in the workplace
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
It is thought that having been pregnant reduces the risk of ovarian cancer, but only in women without a genetic predisposition to, or strong family history of, this type of cancer. However, this should never be the principal reason for starting a family.
In addition, some research suggests that breastfeeding may have a minor protective effect. Like pregnancy, breastfeeding may not be possible or desirable for everyone, and there are other steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer. A doctor will be able to explain the various possible preventative strategies in detail.
Certain types of medication are thought to have an effect on a person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. These include the following:
Taking oral contraceptives, also known as birth control pills, can significantly reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. They have been shown to lower the risk of ovarian cancer in all women, including those who have a genetic predisposition to the disease.
However, oral contraceptives can cause a number of side-effects that may, in rare cases, be serious, and the pills may not be suitable for everyone. A doctor will be able to advise on whether they can be recommended for a particular person.
Hormone replacement therapy
It is thought that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could slightly increase a person’s risk of ovarian cancer, especially if taken for approximately five years or longer after menopause. However, it has been suggested that other factors, such as smoking tobacco, lifestyle factors associated with obesity and obesity itself, have a far greater impact on a person’s risk.
A doctor will be able to advise on whether HRT is suitable for a particular person, as well as what type of medication is best and how long it should be taken.
- Surgery to remove the ovaries (oophorectomy)
- Surgery to block or remove the fallopian tubes (tubal ligation or salpingectomy)
- Surgery to remove the uterus, or womb (hysterectomy)
Like all types of surgery, these procedures carry a risk of complications. They can also impact a woman’s ability to have children. Preventative surgery for ovarian cancer is not suitable for everyone. A doctor will be able to advise whether it should be recommended for a particular person.
Anyone with concerns about their ovarian cancer risk is encouraged to consult a doctor.
Ovarian cancer prevention FAQs
Q: Is there a vaccine to prevent ovarian cancer?
A: While an ovarian cancer prevention shot is not yet available, research is being done to develop one. In recent trials, an ovarian cancer injection treatment showed promising results in a very small group of women with advanced ovarian cancer. The ovarian cancer vaccine was personalized for each participant.
Q: Can taking aspirin help to prevent ovarian cancer?
A: Initial research suggests that daily use of aspirin could lower the risk of ovarian cancer. However, further research is needed to confirm this. Because aspirin can cause serious side-effects, including stomach bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke, it should not be taken regularly unless recommended by one’s doctor.
Q: Do any foods help to prevent ovarian cancer?
A: While many internet sources suggest that certain foods may help to prevent ovarian cancer, there is no specific ovarian cancer prevention diet. A healthy, balanced diet that includes significant quantities of vegetables, fruits and whole grains is recommended by medical professionals. In addition, it is thought that avoiding processed meats and limiting one’s intake of red meat may be beneficial. Alcohol consumption should also be limited.
Q: Will a cervical screening test detect ovarian cancer?
A: No, except in a small number of very advanced cases, where a doctor might see the effects of ovarian cancer while performing the cervical examination. According to Ovarian Cancer Action UK, one in four women mistakenly believe that ovarian cancer can be detected by cervical screening, also known as a cervical smear test or Pap test; a procedure which detects abnormal, potentially precancerous cells in the cervix, the part connecting the womb to the vagina. Detecting, and, if necessary, removing these cells and affected adjacent cervical tissue can reduce a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer, but the procedure does not collect information about the existence of cancerous or precancerous cells in areas other than the cervix. In all cases where ovarian cancer is suspected or a person is considered to be at high risk of developing ovarian cancer, including people with a family history of the condition, specialized screening for ovarian cancer is recommended.
Q: How can a gynecological check-up help prevent ovarian cancer?
A: Going for a regular gynecological check-up can help to identify and address risk factors for ovarian cancer and other conditions of the female reproductive system, as well as increase the likelihood of detecting ovarian cancer at an earlier stage, thereby improving the outlook. It is recommended that all adult women see a gynecologist at least once a year, or whenever they are experiencing symptoms that they suspect are related to their reproductive system. Depending on a particular person’s medical history, needs and risk factors, a doctor may recommend that they go for more frequent check-ups. If a person is concerned about any symptoms, they can also try using the Ada app for a free assessment.
Q: Can an intrauterine device (IUD) prevent ovarian cancer?
A: It is not entirely clear whether an intrauterine contraceptive device, a form of long-acting reversible birth control inserted into the uterus to prevent pregnancy, could slightly increase, slightly decrease, or have no effect on a person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. The results of studies so far have been conflicting, and further research is needed. For those considering an intrauterine device, the risks versus benefits for a particular person can be assessed by, and should be discussed individually with, a doctor.
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