High blood sugar levels may fuel the growth and spread of cancer cells, including in the ovaries.

Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest cancers for women because it often causes no symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. Ovarian cancer is the growth of cancer cells in and around your ovaries, the parts of your body that make reproductive hormones and egg cells.

Diabetes-related high glucose levels may increase your risk of ovarian cancer. Additionally, diabetes can make ovarian cancer harder to treat and worsen the outcome.

Read on to learn more about the relationship between diabetes and ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer affects an estimated 1 in 78 women, about half of whom receive a diagnosis at age 63 years or older. It affects white women more often than Black women and older women more often than younger women.

According to a 2021 research review, diabetes is associated with an increased risk of several cancers, including head, liver, neck, breast, and endometrial cancers. It may also increase your risk of ovarian cancer, and research shows that having both ovarian cancer and diabetes can lead to less favorable treatment outcomes.

Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common type of ovarian cancer, accounting for 85–90% of diagnosed cases. Epithelial ovarian cancer affects the outer surface of one or both ovaries. Research suggests that diabetes is linked to worse outcomes for this type of cancer.

The unique metabolic conditions of diabetes may also fuel the growth of cancer.

Cancer cells and tumors have high energy needs. But because your body can’t feed them an endless supply of blood sugar (glucose), they tend to grow more slowly and self-limit in people without consistently high blood sugar levels.

Diabetes causes elevated blood sugar levels. And, according to one study, glucose feeds the cancerous cells generously, allowing tumors to grow larger and cancer cells to reproduce faster.

In a 2018 study, researchers followed 215 people with epithelial ovarian cancer for 7 years. They found that participants who had both ovarian cancer and diabetes generally had shorter life expectancies and shorter periods of remission.

Diabetes can cause insulin resistance. This means your body needs more and more insulin to allow your cells to absorb glucose (blood sugar) effectively. Your pancreas responds by producing ever-larger amounts of insulin.

Some research suggests that insulin can act in various ways to increase cancer growth or malignancy.

Some factors besides diabetes can affect your risk of developing ovarian cancer. For instance, having a mother, grandmother, daughter, or sister with ovarian cancer increases your risk to 5%, as compared to 1.4% in someone without a relative who has had this cancer.

The more menstrual cycles you have over your lifetime, the more your risk increases.

You may also have an increased risk if you:

  • had your first menstrual period before age 12
  • have experienced infertility
  • have never given birth
  • experienced menopause after age 50
  • have never used birth control pills
  • are older — especially ages 55–64
  • have a history of breast, colon, uterine, or rectal cancer
  • have endometriosis
  • have certain inherited genetic conditions
  • have mutations in certain genes
  • have a family history of some types of cancer
  • have obesity

Some things may also lower your risk of ovarian cancer.

A hysterectomy (the removal of your uterus but not your fallopian tubes) may reduce the risk by up to one-third. Other factors that reduce the time you ovulate may also be protective.

Protective factors may include:

  • full-term pregnancy before age 26
  • multiple pregnancies
  • nursing
  • use of birth control pills
  • tubal ligation (having your fallopian tubes tied)
  • short-term use of an intrauterine device

Having one or several risk factors doesn’t mean you will get ovarian cancer. Some people have several risk factors and never develop it, while others have few or none and do develop it.

Healthcare professionals, especially specialists called gynecologic oncologists, usually treat ovarian cancer with chemotherapy, surgery, or both. Surgery involves removing the affected tissue. Chemotherapy involves drugs that you take by mouth or receive intravenously.

Some forms of cancer treatment can cause elevated blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). Some people with diabetes may have more health-related issues when they undergo cancer treatment. Your healthcare team will likely consider those factors when helping you find a treatment plan.

How does ovarian cancer affect diabetes management?

A 2018 review found that metformin may help limit the growth of ovarian cancer in people with diabetes. It may also reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Metformin is an oral medication that helps regulate blood sugar levels and prevent your body from overproducing insulin. People with diabetes may use metformin along with insulin to manage their blood sugar levels.

Talk with your doctor about which medications are right for you if you have or are at risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Diabetes increases your risk for some types of cancer, including ovarian cancer. It can also lead to shorter remission periods and survival times for those who develop this type of cancer.

Diabetes can foster cancer in a few ways, including by fueling the growth and spread of cancer cells through high blood sugar levels and hormonal changes related to insulin sensitivity. If you have both conditions, your healthcare team can help you develop a treatment plan that considers both.