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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Risk Reduction & Prevention

The exact causes of ovarian cancer are not known, but some risk factors are known. Women can control some risks, but others are uncontrollable, such as age, race and genetic composition. It’s important to remember that having one or more risk factor doesn’t mean a woman will develop ovarian cancer. On the other hand, women may still develop ovarian cancer even if they do not have a single risk factor.

The known factors that increase your risk:

  • Age—most ovarian cancer develops after menopause.
  • Inherited gene mutations—the most significant risk factor is having an inherited mutation in one of two genes called breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2).
    • BRCA1 and BRCA2 are responsible for about 1 in 10 cases of ovarian cancer
    • These gene mutations are also linked to increased risk of breast and colorectal cancer
  • Family history of ovarian cancer—risk of ovarian cancer is higher for women whose mother, sister or daughter had ovarian cancer
    • The risk increases as the number of relatives with ovarian cancer increases
  • Family history of breast cancer or colorectal cancer—family history of cancer can be quite complicated. If you have a history of ovarian, breast, endometrial, colon or pancreatic cancer in your family, you may benefit from seeing a geneticist or by working with the Northwestern Ovarian Cancer Early Detection and Prevention Program (NOCEDPP).
  • Breast cancer—women who have had breast cancer are at higher risk for ovarian cancer.
  • Infertility—women who are infertile seem to be at higher risk.

The known factors that decrease your risk:

  • Pregnancy—women who have had at least one child have a lower risk than women who have never had a child.
    • The risk decreases with each pregnancy.
    • The risk appears to be lower for women who have had one full term pregnancy before the age of 25.
  • Breastfeeding—women who breastfeed for at least one year combined may lower their risk even further.
  • Using birth control pills—taking birth control pills with both estrogen and progesterone also lowers the risk of ovarian cancer.
    • The longer women take them, the more their risk is decreased
    • 90 percent of women are unaware that birth control pill use is associated with:
      • Considerable drop in ovarian cancer risk
      • Lower rates of endometrial cancer
      • No increased risk for breast cancer
    • The reasons for this protection may be
      • Progestin exposure
      • Ovulation suppression
  • Tubal ligation—having a tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by 30 to 60 percent.
  • Prophylactic removal of ovaries (oophorectomy) and fallopian tubes—the risk is lowered greatly by removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes, however, the risk of peritoneal cancer remains.
  • Oophorectomy in conjunction with hysterectomy—The surgical removal of the uterus is called a hysterectomy. A hysterectomy alone will slightly reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Oophorectomy during a hysterectomy eliminates the risk of developing ovarian cancer (although there is still a small risk for peritoneal cancer). Women over the age of 50 who are having a hysterectomy should talk with their physician about having their ovaries removed during surgery.


Though the following risk reduction and prevention methods are not a substitute for medical advice, some studies have shown them to be helpful in reducing cancer risk. Before beginning any new routines or taking any medications (over the counter or prescription), vitamins, or nutritional supplements, please consult your physician.

  • Vitamin D
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines
  • Retinoids
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables has established benefits; however, the role of individual agents is not clearly defined. A well-balanced diet is important for your overall health, and may provide you some protection from many cancers and other diseases.

 The ovarian cancer section was made possible by a generous grant from Bears Care.

Last UpdateSeptember 20, 2011