Health Topics

Menopause and Ovarian Cancer

Is menopause associated with an increased risk of developing cancer?

Menopause and Ovarian Cancer

Menopause itself is not associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. However, the rates of many cancers, including ovarian cancer, do increase with age.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in a woman's ovaries. Ovarian cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death among women. It most often occurs in women in their 50s and beyond.

When found in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer can be cured 90 to 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, early ovarian cancer is hard to detect. Many cases of ovarian cancer are found after the cancer has spread to other organs. In these cases, the cancer is much more difficult to treat and cure.

What causes ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not yet known. You have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if you:

  • Have a family history of ovarian cancer
  • Have never been pregnant
  • Are over the age of 50, since the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer increases as you age
  • Carrying the BRACA gene

Studies show that women who have had children, who breastfeed or who use hormonal contraceptives (like birth control pills) are less likely to develop ovarian cancer. These factors decrease the number of times a woman ovulates, and studies suggest that reducing the number of ovulations during a woman's lifetime may lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

Menopause itself does not cause ovarian cancer. Menopausal hormone therapy does not cause ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

In its early stages, ovarian cancer has few symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is usually an enlarged ovary. The ovaries are located deep within the pelvic cavity, so swelling may go unnoticed until it becomes more advanced.

Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen (caused by build-up of fluids produced by the tumor)
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Change in bowel or bladder function
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in the legs

How can I protect myself from ovarian cancer?

It's difficult for a woman to protect herself from ovarian cancer. Here are a few steps you can take to lessen your risk:

  • Get a yearly pelvic exam.
  • Report any irregular vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain to your doctor.
  • If you have close family members (mother, sister or daughter) with ovarian cancer, discuss your risk factors with your doctor.
  • Don't use excessive talcum powder on or near the vagina.
  • Eat a low-fat diet.
  • Talk to your doctor about the extended use of hormonal contraception to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Women with the BRACA gene and/or a strong family history of breast/ovarian cancer might also consider ovary removal (bilateral oophorectomy) after completing their family.

For more information on gynecological cancers, download the Free Gynecologic Cancers Treatment Guide. And for more information on Managing Menopause, download the Free Treatment Guide to Managing Menopause.