Ovarian cancer begins in your ovaries. It can spread to other parts of your body, especially if it’s not diagnosed and treated early enough. In some cases, it can be fatal.
There are several links between ovarian cancer and age. Your chances of developing ovarian cancer increase as you get older. The age at which you experience certain reproductive events, such as your first period or pregnancy, also affects your risk of getting ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is rare in women under the age of 40, reports the American Cancer Society (ACS). Fifty percent of all cases of ovarian cancer are found in women aged 63 or older. You’re more likely to develop it after you reach menopause.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports the percentage of new ovarian cancer cases found among women in different age groups:
|Age group||Percentage of new cases|
The NCI also reports the percentage of ovarian cancer-related deaths by age group:
|Age group||Percentage of deaths|
|84 and up||14.3%|
The highest death rates occur among women aged 65 to 84. The median age at death is 70.
If you develop ovarian cancer, your chances of recovery and survival are better if it’s diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages. Treatment for late state ovarian cancer is less likely to be curative.
The age at which you experience certain reproductive events also affects your chances of developing ovarian cancer. Specifically, your history of menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy play a role.
If you had your first period before age 12, you’re slightly more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who started menstruating at an older age. On the other end of your reproductive lifespan, your risk of ovarian cancer is higher if you reach menopause after age 50. Your risk is lower if you reach menopause before age 50.
The number of pregnancies you’ve had, and the age at which you first became pregnant, also affect your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Carrying a baby to term before age 26, lowers your risk of ovarian cancer. After that, each full-term pregnancy lowers your risk a little bit more.
Having your first baby after your 35th birthday, or never having a baby, increases your risk of ovarian cancer.
Age and reproductive history aren’t the only risk factors for ovarian cancer. Other risk factors include:
- Genetics: Certain gene mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, significantly raise your risk of ovarian cancer, as well as breast cancer. You can inherit these mutations from your mother or your father.
- Family history: You’re more likely to develop ovarian cancer if you have a birth mother, sister, or daughter who has had ovarian cancer.
- Breast cancer: If you’ve previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re at higher risk of ovarian cancer.
- Infertility: Being infertile, or using fertility drugs, may also increase your risk.
- Hormone replacement therapy: Using hormone replacement therapy after menopause also raises your risk. This is particularly true if you take estrogen alone for five years or more.
- Obesity: Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more also puts you at greater risk.
It’s important to keep in mind that having risk factors for ovarian cancer doesn’t mean that you’re destined to develop it. On the other hand, some women with no risk factors develop this cancer.
Talk to your doctor to learn more about your risk factors and if there are any special recommendations based on your risk.
Certain lifestyle choices and medical interventions may lower your chances of developing ovarian cancer. For example:
- Breastfeeding may lower your risk of this disease.
- Taking birth control pills or oral contraceptives may also help. Being on the pill for as little as three to six months may help cut your chances of getting this type of cancer, suggests the ACS. This benefit lasts for years after you stop taking the pill.
- Having your tubes tied also may lower your chances of getting ovarian cancer by up to two-thirds, reports the ACS. This procedure is known as tubal ligation.
- Having your uterus removed may reduce your risk by about one-third, adds the ACS. This procedure is called a hysterectomy. Like any form of surgery, these procedures involve risk. Your doctor can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of these surgeries.
If you have BRCA gene mutations, getting your ovaries removed may lower your risk of ovarian cancer by 80 to 90 percent, advises the Mayo Clinic. This procedure is known as an oophorectomy. It may also lower your chances of developing breast cancer. Your doctor can help you weigh the potential benefits and risks of this surgery.
The ACS also encourages people to eat a well-balanced diet. The effects of a healthy diet on ovarian cancer risk aren’t yet known, but there are few if any drawbacks for your overall well-being. Among other benefits, a nutritious diet can help lower your risk of developing several other types of cancer. For optimum health, eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Limit your consumption of red meat, processed meat, and other processed foods.