Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer. This holds true even if no one in your family has ever had this type of cancer. But there are certain gene mutations that get passed down in families that could increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are among the gene mutations most commonly associated with ovarian cancer risk. In families where these mutations are passed on, there may be a family history of both ovarian and breast cancer.

You can also carry these gene mutations and never develop ovarian cancer.

In this article, we’ll discuss the role of family history, inherited gene mutations, and how to assess your own risk for ovarian cancer.

We use “women” in this article to reflect the term that’s been historically used to gender people based on their sex at birth. But your gender identity may not align with your risk for ovarian cancer. Your doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into risk factors and symptoms.

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Ovarian cancer can develop due to inherited gene mutations. These are known as germline mutations. If you’re a woman with a family history of ovarian cancer, you may be at a higher risk of developing it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The genes associated with ovarian cancer can come from either your mother’s or father’s side of the family.

When assessing your family history, consider both your first- and second-degree relatives:

First-degree relatives:

  • parents
  • siblings
  • children

Second-degree relatives:

  • grandparents
  • aunts and uncles
  • nieces and nephews
  • half-siblings
  • grandchildren

According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, approximately 20 to 25 percent of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary risk factor for the disease. This means that someone in their family has had ovarian cancer.

The genes most associated with ovarian cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Some other gene mutations that may be associated with ovarian cancer are:

  • BRIP1
  • RAD51C
  • RAD51D
  • ATM
  • PALB2
  • MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and EPCAM, known as Lynch syndrome
  • STK11, or Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • MUTYH, also called MUTYH-associated polyposis

Although inherited gene mutations can increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer, most cases of ovarian cancer aren’t due to inherited gene mutations, according to the CDC.

BRCA stands for “breast cancer” gene, but these genes are associated with several other types of cancer as well, including:

BRCA genes produce proteins that help make repairs to damaged DNA. They’re also known as tumor suppressor genes. When they function well, they can protect you from getting certain cancers.

We all get one copy of these genes from each parent. If you have a parent who carries a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, you have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation.

You can inherit a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation from either parent. Even so, you’ll inherit a normal copy from your other parent. But that normal copy can become altered during your lifetime. This is called somatic alteration.

Without normal BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, BRCA proteins can start to grow out of control which, in turn, can lead to cancer.

People who carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation may develop cancer at an earlier age than people who don’t have these gene mutations. Still, most people who inherit these gene mutations won’t develop ovarian cancer.

In the general population, about 1.2 percent of women will develop ovarian cancer within their lifetime, per the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

But 39 to 44 percent of women who inherit a BRCA1 mutation and 11 to 17 percent who inherit a BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer by age 70 to 80.

If ovarian or breast cancer runs in your family, a genetic counselor can help assess your risk. They’ll start by looking at your personal and family health history, to the extent that you know it.

Ethnicity may play a role, too. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common mutations in people of Ashkenazi Jewish or Eastern European ancestry.

BRCA gene testing can help you find out for sure. These mutations can be detected in a sample of your blood or saliva.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends germline genetic testing for BRCA1, BRCA2, and other susceptibility genes for:

  • all women diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer
  • first- or second-degree blood relatives of those with ovarian cancer with a known susceptibility gene mutation

In addition to family history and inherited gene mutations, other risk factors for ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), include:

  • You personal health history: Having had breast cancer may increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Age: Ovarian cancer is rare before age 40. It’s more common after menopause. About half of all ovarian cancer cases involve women ages 63 or older.
  • Pregnancy: Never having carried a pregnancy to term or having your first full-term pregnancy after age 35 may put you at an increased risk.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT):Using estrogens alone or with progesterone after menopause increases your risk.
  • Obesity: A body mass index (BMI) above 30 may increase risk, but the link between obesity and ovarian cancer is unclear.

There’s no way to completely prevent ovarian cancer, but there a few things that might help lower your risk. Per the CDC, factors that may lower the risk of ovarian cancer include having:

If you take hormone replacement therapy after menopause that includes estrogens alone or estrogen combined with progesterone, speak with your doctor about your risk level and whether you should continue taking these hormones.

If you have inherited a genetic mutation associated with ovarian cancer, it’s important to be mindful of symptoms. There’s no totally effective screening method for ovarian cancer, but your doctor may recommend:

You can also discuss preventive surgery. Some women choose to have both ovaries removed, which is called a bilateral salpingo‐oophorectomy.

Research suggests this may reduce the risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancers by 80 percent. It should be noted that removing the ovaries leads to early menopause.

Ovarian cancer is typically discovered at an advanced stage. For one thing, there’s no reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer in the general population.

Also, symptoms in the early stages can be nonspecific and easy to attribute to something else. Some examples of common symptoms include:

These symptoms can happen for many reasons. According to the ACS, when caused by ovarian cancer, they tend be more severe and persistent.

Some other potential symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you have unusual vaginal bleeding or other symptoms that last more than 2 weeks.

Most of the time, ovarian cancer is not related to family history. But there are certain inherited gene mutations that can significantly increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common ones.

If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you may want to consider speaking with a genetic counselor. They can help you decide if you want genetic testing. You can also speak with a doctor about symptoms to watch for and how you can lower your risk of ovarian cancer.