Ovarian cancer: causes and risk factors

Ovarian cancer is a malignant disease affecting the ovaries (egg-producing organs) of women. It is one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in females and has an incidence of about 1,4% of the population. The average age at diagnosis is mid-50s.

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but it is thought that constant ovulation with subsequent healing of the burst egg follicle is responsible. Each ovulation needing cell renewal to heal the ovary gives a possible opportunity for a malignant change. Some factors that are considered protective, by reducing the number of ovulations, are:

- Having many pregnancies

- Use of the contraceptive pill

- Tubal ligation and hysterectomy

- Breastfeeding

Factors increasing the risk of ovarian cancer are:

- Early onset of puberty

- Late menopause

- Cigarette smoking

- Obesity

- Infertility (but not infertility treatment)

- Family history of breast/ovarian cancer

- Genetic (certain genes): BRCA1 and BRCA2

The link with diet, exercise, talc/asbestos exposure and mumps remain unproven.