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What are the risks of developing ovarian cancer?

What we do know from many years of statistical research is that around 2% of UK women - that’s 1 in 50 - are likely to develop ovarian cancer at some point in their lives, making it the fifth most common female cancer after breast, lung, bowel and cervical cancers.  Statistics also reveal that there are certain factors that appear to increase the risk while, on the other side of the coin, there are others that seem to reduce it.

So in this third article on the subject to coincide with Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we’ll be looking at both sets of factors in more detail as well as dispelling some of the myths and misconceptions about a disease that afflicts over 7000 women in the UK every year.

For example, it is a myth that ovarian cancer only affects older women.  Although it is true that the majority of cases appear in women over 50 who have already gone through the menopause, it can also occur in women at a much younger age, especially if there is a family history of close relatives having had the disease or other related genetically inheritable cancers such as breast, bowel, stomach or womb cancers.

It is also a misconception that signs of ovarian cancer will be automatically picked up during a routine cervical smear test.  The two diseases are unrelated, so it is vitally important that women of all ages should undertake regular testing specifically designed to detect ovarian cancer in the hope of identifying the disease at an early stage.

Who is most at risk?

Apart from age and family history, there are a number of other factors that could – and we do stress that the word is ‘could’ rather than ‘will’ – increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer, the most common of which include:

  • a long menstrual history – for example, starting your periods before the age of 12
  • going through the menopause beyond the age of 55
  • infertility, which may be exacerbated by certain types of IVF fertility treatment
  • using a coil (IUD) for birth control over a prolonged period of time
  • taking the oestrogen only type of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • not having children or having your first child after 30
  • being overweight or particularly tall
  • eating an excessively fatty diet
  • regularly using talcum powder in the genital area
  • smoking

What can you do to protect yourself?

The jury is very much still out on this, as different research studies have come out with conflicting conclusions.  However, there seems to be general agreement that taking the contraceptive pill at some point in your life can have a significant impact on reducing the risk of developing ovarian cancer.  One theory is that the pill hinders the production of eggs, therefore limiting the number of cells that could mutate and become cancerous.  Another more recent theory is that one active hormone in the pill (progesterone) can help damaged cells actually destroy themselves before they can become dangerous.

There is also evidence that having children seems to reduce the risk, with women who have 3 children or more halving their risk of developing cancer compared to childless women.  However, there is also evidence that this is more about how many times a woman becomes pregnant rather than the actual process of having children, as miscarriages and abortions appear to reduce the risk too.

The other main area of research into what might reduce the risk of ovarian cancer – and, perhaps, the most controversial – is the effect of breast feeding.  Certain studies indicate a potential reduction in risk as the ovaries cease their normal monthly egg production when a woman breast feeds frequently for 6 months or more.  Other studies show no link at all so – leaving aside the health benefits to the baby as a separate debate – the decision to breast feed or not should remain very much a matter of personal choice.

If you are at all worried that you could be in a high-risk category of developing ovarian cancer, you might consider seeking the peace of mind of making an appointment with our Gynae Clinic to be tested for any early signs of the disease.  For more information about our testing procedures, go to http://www.edinburghclinic.com/services/gynae-health-clinic/.

Further information:

Date: 25/03/2014
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