The cause of ovarian cancer is not known, however what is known is that some women are at greater risk than others.
The most common risk factors to consider are:
- Being a caucasian woman living in a westernised country with a high standard of living.
- Being overweight. Obese women (those with a body mass index of at least 30) have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- A family history of ovarian cancer.
- Having no or few full-term pregnancies/children. The risk goes down with each pregnancy. Breast feeding may lower the risk even further.
- Having your children later in life, i.e. past the age of 30.
- Never taking oral contraception.
- Being of Ashkenzi Jewish descent.
- You have had breast cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer after breast cancer is highest in those women with a family history of breast cancer. A strong family history of breast cancer may be caused by an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. These mutations can also cause ovarian cancer.
Some of the more controversial studies, which have both supporters and detractors, state that these factors below can contribute to ovarian cancer. However it is important to note that these studies are not conclusive:
- A diet high in animal meat and fats and whole milk.
- Cigarette smoking; this doesn’t increase the risk for most ovarian cancers, but does increase the risk for many other cancers.
- Talcum powder; it has been suggested that talcum powder applied directly to the genital area or on sanitary napkins may be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to the ovaries. Some studies suggest a very slight increase in risk of ovarian cancer in women who used talc on the genital area. In the past, talcum powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos, a known cancer-causing mineral. This may explain the association with ovarian cancer in some studies. Body and face powder products have been required by law for more than 20 years to be asbestos-free. However, proving the safety of these newer products will require follow-up studies of women who have used them for many years.
- Multiple exposures to fertility drugs. Studies are not conclusive.
- Using oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for 10 or more years. Again, studies are not conclusive.