Factors Related to Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in United States women, and causes so many deaths largely because it is often not detected until it is in its later stages. For reasons as yet unknown, ovarian cancer affects women in the United States, Europe and Canada more often than women in the rest of the world, and white women have a much higher risk of ovarian cancer than black women in the United States. It is currently believed that ovarian cancer results from a combination of environmental, genetic and hormonal factors.

Hormones and Ovarian Cancer

Women who have had several pregnancies and who breast fed for extended periods of time have been shown to have a lowered risk of ovarian cancer, and, conversely, women who have never borne children have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Women who have taken oral contraceptives for extended amounts of time seem to have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, while those who have taken hormone replace therapy drugs in an estrogen-only form, appear to have a much greater incidence.

Genetic Factors

Women who have a mother or sister who has had ovarian cancer appear to have a higher risk factor of getting the disease, although this type of family history is believed to account for only 5-6% of ovarian cancers. Another small percentage may carry a mutation of the BRCA genes which can lead to ovarian cancer. Women who have one or more Jewish grandparents appear to have a much greater risk of having ovarian cancer-nearly twice as much-possibly due to a much higher prevalence of the BRCA gene among Jewish women. Another gene known as the CYP1A1 gene has been shown to be important in the metabolizing of estrogen and chemical carcinogens, and women who had a certain form of this gene were shown to have a six times greater risk of ovarian cancer.

Environmental Issues

Ovarian cancer may be linked to talc, when used around a woman's genitals, solvents, wood dust, dyes, and herbicides, although vitamin D has been shown to minimize the damage done by these environmental factors. Women who work in the printing industry have been shown to have a higher risk of ovarian cancer, leading to the belief that certain solvents may be involved. Women who work in the telephone industry have also been shown to have a higher risk of ovarian cancer, possibly due to exposure to electromagnetic fields. In countries like Africa and South America where ovarian cancer is more rare, the link may be to the sunlight and vitamin D women are exposed to as vitamin D has been shown to have anti-cancer properties.

Oddly enough, tubal ligation and hysterectomy has been shown to decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. The theory behind this decrease is that certain cancer-causing substances may possibly enter the body via the vagina, passing through the uterus to reach the ovaries. Removing the uterus or blocking the fallopian tubes would cut down on the carcinogenic substances which reach the ovaries. As with most types of cancer, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and avoiding carcinogens and environmental toxins are your best defense against ovarian cancer.

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