Two women reading a Target Ovarian Cancer guide in a hospital

Ovarian cancer risk

Find out about factors that can increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer, including your age and family history.

Each year 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK. The risk of developing ovarian cancer for the general population of women is two per cent in the course of their lifetime. But some have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. It’s important for everyone to be aware of the risk factors and the symptoms of ovarian cancer. 

What are risk factors?

A risk factor is something that can increase your chances of developing a cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risks are linked with more than one cancer. 

There are a number of possible causes of ovarian cancer but these aren’t yet fully understood. The most important risk factors are age and a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer. 

9 out of 10 cases of ovarian cancer are a type called epithelial ovarian cancer. The risk factors explained here are specific to this type of cancer. Find out more about types of ovarian cancer

Age

As with most cancers the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as you get older. Those over the age of 50 have a higher risk. Most cases of ovarian cancer happen in those who have already gone through the menopause (when you stop having periods). More than 5 in 10 cases of ovarian cancer are in those over 65 years. 

Although it's not common, those who are younger and pre-menopausal can get ovarian cancer. Around 1,000 women under the age of 50 develop ovarian cancer every year. That’s why it's important that everyone is aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. This is especially important if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. 

Family history

About 8 in 10 cases of ovarian cancer are 'sporadic'. This means they're one-offs and not inherited and close relatives face no significant increase in their risk of developing the disease themselves. This is important to remember, as it can be worrying if a close family member is affected by ovarian cancer.  

About 2 in 10 cases of ovarian cancer are believed to be caused by an inherited genetic variant (or mutated gene). This is often the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene (BReast CAncer 1 and 2). If you inherit a variant of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene you have a much higher risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer than the general population. 

There are some other genes which have also been linked to ovarian cancer. These include PALB2, RAD51C, RAD51D, STK11 and BRIP1 (FABCJ) and those linked to Lynch Syndrome (formerly known as hereditary non polyposis colorectal cancer or HNPCC). The chance of developing cancer of the stomach, liver, kidney, bladder, skin and brain can also be increased by having a variant in one of the Lynch Syndrome genes. 

Speak to your GP if there are two or more cases of ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer on either your mother or father's side of the family. Your GP will offer you more information about your level of risk. They may then refer you to a genetic counsellor to help you decide whether to have genetic testing. If you carry a variant in a gene such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 it may increase your risk of developing ovarian or breast cancer in future. 

Your genetic counsellor and specialist team will support you through this process. They will help you to understand your risk and offer advice on risk management options. 

More about hereditary ovarian cancer

Other ovarian cancer risk factors

Media stories sometimes appear to show links between the risk of ovarian cancer and various activities, foods or physical traits. Often when examined closely the increase in risk is very small or evidence is limited. 

Being overweight

There's a slight increased risk of developing ovarian cancer for someone that’s obese. For someone without a family history, a 2014 study found that their lifetime risk increases from 2 per cent to 2.24 per cent. The study found that those with a body mass index (BMI) above 28 seem to have a slightly higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. This supports earlier studies that showed that a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. Calculate your BMI

Using talcum powder

Various studies have shown a link between using talcum powder between the legs and ovarian cancer. The talcum powder could possibly travel into the vagina through the cervix and into the womb. Once in the womb it could then possibly reach the fallopian tubes and then the ovaries. The powder could then cause irritation and over time cause cancerous changes to the cells of the ovaries. 

We'd therefore generally advise against using talcum powder on this area of the body. But the increased risk is very small. For someone without a family history of ovarian cancer the lifetime risk of developing the disease is two per cent. Or put another way, 4 in 200. For those that used talcum powder it could be 5 in 200. 

Use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Some research suggests that taking hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) may slightly increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Different studies give different results for the exact level of risk, but it's likely that this risk is small. 

HRT can be useful for those experiencing symptoms while going through the menopause. You should talk to your GP about the benefits and risks of HRT before making a decision about whether to take it. 

Endometriosis

There's evidence to suggest that women with endometriosis have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The level of this risk changes from study to study. It seems to be linked with certain types of ovarian cancer such as clear cell and endometrioid epithelial ovarian cancer. Many more have endometriosis than are diagnosed with ovarian cancer so having endometriosis isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. 

Smoking

Smoking can increase your risk of certain types of ovarian cancer. About 3 in every 100 cases of ovarian cancer seem to be linked to exposure to tobacco smoke. Other types of ovarian cancer aren’t linked with smoking. 

Diabetes

Research has shown that diabetics have an increased risk of 20–25 per cent compared with non-diabetics of developing ovarian cancer. Also the risk may be slightly higher in diabetics who use insulin instead of diet or tablet controlled diabetics. 


Last reviewed: April 2022

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