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Risks and causes

Read about the factors that can increase or reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.

Your risk of developing cancer depends on many things including age, genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors.

Anything that can increase your risk of cancer is called a risk factor. Those that lower the risk are called protective factors.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get cancer.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer

The following factors can increase the risk of ovarian cancer: 

Getting older

As with most cancers, the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as you get older. Just over half of ovarian cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in women aged 65 and over.

Inherited faulty genes

Between 5 and 15 out of 100 ovarian cancers (5 to 15%) are caused by an inherited faulty gene. Inherited genes that increase the risk of ovarian cancer include faulty versions of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Faults in these genes also increase the risk of breast cancer.

Having relatives with ovarian cancer does not necessarily mean that you have a faulty inherited gene in the family. The cancers could have happened by chance. But women with a mother or sister diagnosed with ovarian cancer have around 3 times the risk of ovarian cancer compared to women without a family history.

If you are worried about your family history of ovarian cancer, speak to your GP. They might refer you to a genetics service. 

Previous cancer

You have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if you've had breast cancer in the past. The risk is higher in women diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, and those with oestrogen receptor negative (ER negative) breast cancer.

Women who had bowel cancer at a young age have an increased risk of ovarian cancer compared to the general population.

The increase in risk of ovarian cancer after previous cancer is likely to be partly due to inherited faulty genes such as BRCA 1 and 2, and Lynch syndrome.

Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Using HRT after the menopause increases the risk of ovarian cancer. In the UK, less than 1 in 100 (1%) ovarian cancers are linked to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) use. 

Remember that the increase in risk is small and HRT is helpful for many women with menopausal symptoms. Talk to your GP about the risks and benefits of taking HRT.

Smoking

Smoking can increase the risk of certain types of ovarian cancer such as mucinous ovarian cancer. The longer you have smoked, the greater the risk.

Asbestos

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classify asbestos as a cause of ovarian cancer.

Radiation

There is some evidence to link radiation with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. A very small number of ovarian cancer cases may be caused by radiotherapy for a previous cancer.

Medical conditions

Studies have shown that women with endometriosis or diabetes have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. In diabetics, the increase in risk might be higher in those that use insulin.

Being overweight or obese

Having excess body fat is linked to an increase in risk of ovarian cancer.

Possible protective factors

The following factors may reduce your risk of ovarian cancer: 

Taking the combined contraceptive pill

Taking the combined contraceptive pill at some point in your life reduces your risk of cancer of the ovary. Research has shown that the longer you take the pill, the more your risk is thought to be reduced. The reduction in risk lasts for tens of years after you stop taking the pill.

Having children and breastfeeding

Having children seems to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. The more children you have, the lower the risk. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of ovarian cancer.

This reduction in risk may be because while you are pregnant or breastfeeding you're not ovulating (releasing eggs). The fewer times you ovulate in your lifetime the lower the risk of ovarian cancer. 

Having a hysterectomy or having your tubes tied

Having your tubes tied because you don't want any more pregnancies is called sterilisation. Studies have found that having your tubes tied reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. 

Until recently, most research has shown that having your womb removed (hysterectomy) may also reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. But this has become less clear in recent years and might depend on several factors including your age when you had the operation. Any reduction in risk may be greater for younger women. Researchers continue to study this area. 

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes are often in the media and it isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by evidence. There might be things you have heard of that we haven’t included here. This is because either there is no evidence about them or it is less clear.

For detailed information on ovarian cancer risks and causes

Last reviewed: 
23 Mar 2016
  • List of classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans, volumes 1 to 121
    International Agency for Research on Cancer

  • Risk and prognosis of ovarian cancer in women with endometriosis: a meta-analysis
    H Kim and others
    British Journal of Cancer. 2014 April 2;110(7):1878-90

  • Anthropometric factors and ovarian cancer risk: a systematic review and nonlinear dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies
    D Aune and others
    Internation Journal of Cancer, 2014. Volume 136, Issue 8, Pages 1888-98

  • Ovarian cancer familial relative risks by tumour subtypes and by known ovarian cancer genetic susceptibility variants.
    S Jervis and others
    Journal of Medical Genetics. 2014 February;51(2):108-13

  • Body fatness and cancer - viewpoint of the IARC Working Group
    B Lauby-Secretan and others
    The New England Journal of Medicine, 2016. Volume 375, Pages 794-798

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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