Protective factors: reducing the risk of ovarian cancer

Find out about the factors that may reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

It's important to consider the other risks that may be associated with the protective factors below. It's also important to remember that while they may lower the risk, they won't prevent you from developing ovarian cancer, so continue to look out for the symptoms.

The contraceptive pill

The combined contraceptive pill is known to almost halve the risk of ovarian cancer if taken for ten years or more. However, you and your GP need to weigh up the benefits and other possible health risks of taking the combined contraceptive pill.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

These combine to reduce the chance of developing ovarian cancer but they don't guarantee that you won't develop ovarian cancer. It's recognised that an increased number of ovulatory cycles raises the risk of ovarian cancer, so a decreased number of cycles reduces the risk. A woman who has multiple pregnancies and breastfeeds won't ovulate (produce eggs) as much during her lifetime. This is because during pregnancy the ovaries don't ovulate and because breast feeding delays the start of ovulation following a pregnancy. These combine to reduce the risk. 

Hysterectomy and/or having your tubes tied

Some women opt to have their fallopian tubes tied because they don't want any more children – this is called sterilisation. It's known to reduce ovarian cancer risk. Previously it was also thought that women who had had a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the womb) had a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, the benefits of this are now unclear and depend on factors such as the age you have the surgery. Having a hysterectomy and having the ovaries removed is known to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. But women should weigh up the benefits and risks associated with having ovaries removed with their doctor.

Other FAQs relating to the risk and prevention of ovarian cancer

Do ovarian cysts increase the risk of ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cysts are very common and can affect women of any age. They are more frequent in women of childbearing age because they're linked to ovulation. Very often a cyst develops and disappears without the woman even knowing that she had one. These cysts are not known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer. However, because there's a slightly higher risk of older women developing ovarian cancer current guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology recommend that post-menopausal women with a cyst should be monitored with a CA125 blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound (TVU).

Does polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) increase the risk of ovarian cancer?

PCOS affects millions of women worldwide. But at this stage there is no strong evidence to suggest that having PCOS increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Find out more about PCOS.

Can any specific diet reduce my risk of ovarian cancer?

A good diet and regular exercise can reduce your risk slightly, as obese women have a slightly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Including vegetables with low cholesterol in your diet (such as broccoli, cabbage and onions) may also be beneficial. There has been a variety of research to try to understand if there's any link between different types of diet and ovarian cancer but so far this research has been inconclusive.

Is there a link between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ovarian cancer?

Symptoms of IBS are very similar to ovarian cancer and include tummy pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Some women with ovarian cancer are misdiagnosed with IBS. It's important to note that IBS very rarely presents for the first time in women over the age of 50 so women over this age with these symptoms should be given appropriate tests for ovarian cancer.

Will having IVF increase my risk of ovarian cancer? 

News reports have suggested that IVF increases the risk of ovarian cancer by one-third. However, the actual increase is very small, with a risk of two in 2000 increasing to three in 2000. The relevant study suggested that the small increase in risk may not be due to the IVF treatment directly. Instead it may potentially be due to the underlying biological causes of infertility on the female side. More research needs to be undertaken in order to understand this better.

 


Last reviewed: February 2020

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