Ovarian cancer

The risk of ovarian cancer and several other cancers rises once you reach the menopause. The menopause itself is not the sole cause of ovarian cancer but the risk of this does tend to increase with age.

Most cases of ovarian cancer occur in the postmenopausal stage.

Many cancers occur with age which is mainly due to cells which have accumulated a great deal of damage over the years. Like every other part of the body they start to show the effects of wear and tear and our lifestyles and these manifest themselves as a range of diseases.

Ovarian cancer is the 5th most common form of cancer, in women, in the UK.

(Source: Cancer Research UK/Cancer Help/ovarian-cancer)

The menopause and your ovaries

Your ovaries perform a vital role. They produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone which are responsible for a range of functions within the body. One of these functions is menstruation.

They also release an egg each month in a process called ovulation.

This egg travels down the Fallopian tubes and into the uterus (womb) where it lies ready to be fertilised. The walls of the uterus thicken in readiness for this.

If fertilisation takes place then this egg undergoes a developmental process whereby it changes from an embryo into a baby.

But if not then the egg dies and is expelled from the body with the thickened lining of the uterus. This is known as a menstrual period.

This process starts from puberty and continues until middle age and the start of the menopause.

The ovaries produce less of these hormones as the menopause draws near.

Causes of ovarian cancer

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of ovarian cancer but there are several factors which we do know are triggers for this cancer.

They include:

  • Being over the age of 50
  • Postmenopause
  • Never had children
  • Carrier of the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes
  • Being overweight
  • Infertile
  • Using an intra-uterine device (IUD)
  • Using talcum powder
  • Lifestyle factors, e.g. smoking

But family history accounts for most cases of ovarian cancer. So if someone in your family has experienced this cancer then you have an increased risk of doing so.

Another cause of ovarian cancer is hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

HRT and ovarian cancer

Hormone replacement therapy is a form of treatment which has proven to be effective at treating the symptoms of the menopause. For many women it has been seen as the perfect answer to hot flushes, night sweats etc.

But there are risks, in particular long term use of HRT.

There are benefits from taking HRT but this has to be balanced against the risks.

If you are currently taking HRT then these should have been explained to you. But if you are thinking about this treatment then research it as much as possible, talk to others and then visit your GP.

He or she will look at your medical history and current state of health before deciding if you are suitable or not. If HRT is not advisable then he/she will recommend a suitable alternative.

Find out more about HRT in our menopause treatment section.

Reducing the risk of ovarian cancer

One of the main causes of ovarian cancer is family history which is something that you, unfortunately, cannot change.

This is not to say that you will get ovarian cancer; rather that you have an increased risk due to your family history. But do not assume that because your grandmother had ovarian cancer that you will do the same.

But, nevertheless, there is a risk so you may wish to consider reducing that risk by having your ovaries removed. But only do this once you have decided to have no more children.

This is a drastic course of action but one to consider if you have a family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer or you are carrying the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes.

What else can you do to reduce the risk?

Other preventative measures include:

  • Having regular pelvic examination
  • Report any abnormal bleeding, abdominal pain and weight loss to your GP.
  • Avoid using talcum powder around your vagina
  • Healthy diet
  • Exercise
  • Maintain a sensible weight
  • Stop smoking

Certain types of painkillers can reduce the risk as can having children (compared to childless women), using contraception and undergoing sterilisation, e.g. hysterectomy or tubal ligation.

If you want to know more about these lifestyle changes then visit our menopause self help section.

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