What is my risk compared with other women?
On average, women have about a 2% chance of developing ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Women with a close relative affected with ovarian cancer may have a slightly increased risk of around 4-5%.
Women who have a faulty BRCA1 gene have a 40–60% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Women who have a faulty BRCA2 gene have a 10-30% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. There is no increased risk of ovarian cancer for women carrying BRCA mutations before age 30 years. For women carrying BRCA1 the risk starts to increase after 35 years of age, but by age 40 the risk of developing ovarian cancer is less than 4%. The risk of developing ovarian cancer in women who carry BRCA 2 mutation before age 40 years is less than 2% and only begins to rise significantly after age 45.
How do the ovaries normally work?
Normally a woman has two ovaries and each month an egg is released from one of the ovaries. If the egg is fertilised a pregnancy may result. If a pregnancy does not occur, the lining of the womb (uterus) falls away and the women has her period.
As well as storing and producing eggs, ovaries produce the female sex hormones called oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones cause a woman’s breasts to develop, help make periods regular and work to build up the lining of the womb each month to support a pregnancy (if it occurs). The ovaries also produce a hormone called testosterone that influences hair growth and sex drive (libido). As a woman gets closer to the menopause, the ovaries make less of these hormones and her periods gradually stop. For most women this usually happens between the early forties and mid-fifties.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
It is important to be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms and discuss any concerns with your GP. Ovarian cancer was once known as a “silent” disease, because its symptoms can be vague. Evidence now shows that any of the following three symptoms, if they occur on most days may suggest ovarian cancer:
- persistent pelvic and abdominal pain,
- increased abdominal size or persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes),
- difficulty eating, and feeling full quickly.
Occasionally, women may also experience other symptoms, such as urinary symptoms, changes in bowel habit, extreme fatigue or back pain, on their own or at the same time as those listed above. These symptoms are unlikely to be due to ovarian cancer, but may be present in some women with the disease. If you regularly experience any of these symptoms and they’re not normal for you, see your GP.
Oral contraceptive pill
Using the combined oral contraceptive pill while young and for more than five years may increase the risk of breast cancer but this is probably outweighted by the reduction in the risk of ovarian cancer. There is no evidence of any increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer with the progesterone only contraceptive pill.