Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Causes, risk factors and prevention

What causes ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not yet known. Ovarian cancer accounts for nearly 4 percent of all cancers among women and ranks second in incidence among gynecologic cancers. It is the fifth most common cancer among women but is the fourth most common cause of cancer death.

What are risk factors for ovarian cancer?

Certain risk factors may increase a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer. The following have been suggested as risk factors for ovarian cancer:

  • Early menarche – starting monthly periods before the age of 12.
  • Late menopause – after the age of 52. 
  • Being over the age of 50. 
  • Infertility – inability to become pregnant. 
  • HNPCC kindred. 
  • Personal history of breast or colon cancer. 
  •  Family history – first-degree relatives (such as mother, daughter, sister) of a woman who has had ovarian cancer are at a risk for developing the disease. The risk increases if two or more first-degree relatives have had ovarian cancer. A family history of breast or colon cancer also is associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. 
  • Prolonged use of certain fertility drugs, such as clomiphene.

Research studies have shown that certain genes are responsible for increasing the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, such as BrCA1 and BrCA2.

How can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Suggested preventive measures include the following:

  • Healthy diet – high in fruits, vegetables, grains and low in saturated fat.
  • Birth control pills. 
  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding. 
  • Hysterectomy – surgical removal of the uterus. 
  • Tubal ligation – surgery to block the fallopian tubes to prevent conception. 
  • Oophorectomy – surgical removal of ovaries.