Ovarian Cancer Prevention

Despite what ovarian cancer's ranking as the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in females in the United States may indicate, there are things you can do to prevent it or at least reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding talc in personal care products, considering risks when choosing birth control methods or hormone replacement, and considering surgery if you have a very high risk are all options. Finding these cancers as early as possible (early detection) is more challenging, as screening guidelines are not currently available.

Awareness

Preventing, or at least reducing your risk begins with knowing your risk factors for ovarian cancer. While some are not modifiable (your age or when you had your first period, for example), others may be. Read on for some related suggestions. Having a sense of how many risk factors apply to you can serve as a reminder to be aware of the early symptoms of the disease so that you seek medical attention as soon as possible if they occur.

Since ovarian cancer is considered "multifactorial," meaning that several processes usually work together to either raise or reduce the risk of these cancers, making even small changes can sometimes make a large difference in whether a person develops cancer.  

Healthy Habits 

Two of these likely come as no surprise, as they are beneficial not just for ovarian cancer prevention, but that of virtually all diseases. One, though, may surprise you.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Attaining and maintaining a healthy weight (a body mass index between 19 and 25) is a good idea whether or not you are concerned about ovarian cancer. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of some (but not all) types of ovarian cancer, especially those in premenopausal women. If losing weight sounds impossible, keep in mind that you don't have to reach your ideal weight to reduce your risk. Losing only 5 pounds to 10 pounds is beneficial if you are overweight. 

If You Smoke, Quit

Smoking only increases the risk of one type of ovarian cancer, mucinous epithelial tumors, but there are a multitude of reasons to quit today.

Consider Breastfeeding Your Babies

As with breast cancer risk, breastfeeding may reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding often inhibits ovulation, which reduces your exposure to estrogen and abnormal cells that could lead to cancer, according to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It's recommended that you breastfeed full-time for at least six months to reap this potential benefit. And in terms of risk reduction, more time is even better.

Daily Life

Routine choice you make every day can also help in your quest to prevent ovarian cancer.

Spice Up Your Life

Eating a healthy diet full of a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains, and beans, and low in red and processed meats, is recommended for the prevention of all cancers, not just ovarian. But think, too, about what else you incorporate into your cooking.

Turmeric is a common ingredient in curry and mustards (responsible for the yellow color) and a component of the spice, called curcumin, has been found to have powerful anti-cancer properties.

Researchers first noted that the incidence of ovarian cancer in Japan is very low, while the consumption of Ukon tea (which contains turmeric) is high. Further studies looking at ovarian cancer cells in the lab found that turmeric stimulated programmed cell death (apoptosis) in ovarian cancer cells but not normal cells. We don't know if any of the studies done in the lab would translate to effects in humans, and it's far too early to talk about adding a supplement to your daily routine. But if you enjoy curry and mustard, including these as a regular part of your diet may not hurt.

Avoid Talc in Personal Care Products

Talc in feminine dusting sprays and powders is associated with the development of ovarian cancer. While talc isn't the greatest risk factor for ovarian cancer, it is one that is easily avoidable.

Medication Choices

Some medications may increase your risk of ovarian cancer, so their use should be considered carefully, especially if you have several risk factors for the disease. On the other hand, other medications can actually help prevent ovarian cancer.

Birth Control

Some birth control methods may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, but a careful discussion of all risks and benefits is important if you are looking at these choices in association with cancer prevention.

Women who take oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. To understand this, it is helpful to think of ovulation. When an egg is released from the ovary into a fallopian tube, an area of inflammation and trauma is created. It's thought that inflammation such as this may play a role in the development of cancer. Oral contraceptives (the Pill) inhibit ovulation. Overall, the Pill can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer up to 50 percent, depending on how long it is used. In addition, this risk reduction appears to last up to 30 years.

This reduction in ovarian cancer, however, must be weighed against other benefits or side effects. People who take birth control pills are more likely to develop blood clots, especially if they smoke. The use of oral contraceptives also increases the risk of breast cancer to a small degree, especially in those who have a high risk of the disease.

The Depo-Provera shot (given once every three months for birth control) contains progesterone but not estrogen and also appears to reduce ovarian cancer risk. While Depo-Provera may not carry the breast cancer risk of the combination birth control pill, there are other side effects of the shot, such as weight gain.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

If you are considering the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), there are many issues to consider in addition to ovarian cancer risk. That said, it's important for women to understand that those who take estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy long term have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who take combined estrogen and progesterone preparations.

Surgery

There are a few types of surgery that are known to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, though the indications for these surgeries vary.

  • Salpingo-oophorectomy: This is the standard treatment for ovarian cancer risk reduction in people at high risk (such as with BRCA gene mutations). This surgery involves removing both of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, and can often be done as a minimally invasive procedure (with a few small incisions in the abdomen and a probe used to remove tissue). Removing these tissues can lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer between 75 percent and 90 percent. Some people are surprised that this surgery does not completely eliminate risk, as some ovarian cancers arise in the membranes surrounding the abdominal and pelvic organs (the peritoneum) rather than in the ovaries or fallopian tubes themselves.
  • Tubal ligation: For reasons we don't clearly understand, tubal ligation ("tying the tubes") may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer up to 70 percent, depending on the age at which it is performed. A tubal ligation is usually done as a form of birth control, but given this reduction, those who have a high risk of developing ovarian cancer may wish to consider it. Know, however, that tubal ligation is considered irreversible. 
  • Hysterectomy and salpingectomy: Many women have a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) for a variety of conditions, but choose to keep their ovaries. This is especially true if a woman is young and could have significant side effects related to the lack of estrogen produced by the ovaries. Many physicians, however, are now recommending removal of the fallopian tubes along with the uterus to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Early Detection

Early detection refers to finding an ovarian cancer that is already present as early as possible. Most cancer screening tests are actually early detection tests. While they can't help you prevent the disease, results may prompt additional testing that can confirm a diagnosis and prompt intervention that may help derail disease progression.

However, unlike mammograms, which are proven to reduce deaths from breast cancer, ovarian cancer testing is not as helpful in this regard.

First, there is, in fact, no routine screening for ovarian cancer at this time. Ovarian cancer may sometimes be detected on a regular physical, though there's no evidence that this reduces the death rate from the disease. There are some tests that some physicians order for high-risk women (such as transvaginal ultrasounds and CA-125 blood tests), but the same thing can be said of them, too.

Remember, though, that these are statistics based on "average" findings of a large number of women. Every woman is different. You and your doctor may feel that a screening strategy is important given your risk, and it certainly may be of benefit in your specific case.

The most important point is to be your own advocate and make sure you thoroughly understand any early detection tests your doctor recommends.

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