Know your ovarian cancer risks

An annual well-woman exam and regular visits to your OB/GYN may be your best defense against ovarian cancer

All women are at risk for ovarian cancer.

An annual well-woman exam and regular visits to an OB/GYN provide opportunities to discuss your ovarian cancer risk and any possible ovarian cancer symptoms.

Ovarian cancer risk factors

Factors that may increase risk for ovarian cancer include:

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  • Personal or family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer. This includes close family members — mother, sister, aunt or grandmother — on either the mother’s or the father’s side.
  • Genetics. This includes having a family cancer syndrome from mutations in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
  • Age. Most ovarian cancers occur after menopause, with half occurring in women over age 63.
  • Fertility/pregnancies. Risk is higher for women who have never given birth or have had trouble getting pregnant, as well as women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 35.
  • Hormone replacement. Use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause.

Discuss all of your risk factors with your OB/GYN during your annual well-woman exam. Women with one or more risk factors should be vigilant about symptoms.

Symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary urgency (always feeling like you have to go)
  • Urinary frequency (having to go often)

These can be symptoms for other noncancerous issues as well. When they are associated with ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and a change from normal. If you have these symptoms more than 12 times a month, see your health provider.

Lowering your ovarian cancer risk

Some choices can lower your risk. They include:

  • Oral contraceptives. According to the American Cancer Society, women who use oral contraceptives for five or more years have about a 50 percent lower risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding. Giving birth and breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Gynecologic surgery. Hysterectomy, tubal ligation or having the ovaries removed can reduce ovarian cancer risk.
  • Regular well-woman exams. During a pelvic exam, a health care provider feels the ovaries and uterus for shape, size and consistency. This can sometimes find cancers at an early stage.
  • Report any symptoms. While many early symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to other conditions, if you experience symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks, talk to your OB/GYN right away.

A Pap test does not detect ovarian cancer. It is a test to detect cervical cancer.

Talk to your OB/GYN about your risk and how to lower it. Your health care provider, who knows your health history, can make the best recommendations for your continued health.

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