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5 Science-Backed Ways to Lower Your Ovarian Cancer Risk

5 Science-Backed Ways to Lower Your Ovarian Cancer Risk

These smart lifestyle choices can reduce your chances of cancer and improve your overall health.

Approximately 21,400 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates. But it’s possible to lower your odds of a diagnosis by making certain lifestyle choices. Melodi Reese-Holley, MD, an OBGYN at Omega Obstetrics and Gynecology, affiliated with Medical City Arlington in Grand Prairie, Texas, offers science-backed ways to reduce your risk.

Know your birth control options
Women who take birth control pills are less likely to develop ovarian cancer. In fact, staying on a contraceptive pill for at least five years may cut your risk by up to 50 percent, according to the ACS. That goes for women at average risk and those who carry a BRCA mutation.

Birth control methods that decrease your total number of periods may be especially protective.

“When you ovulate, it causes minor trauma to the surface of your ovaries,” explains Dr. Reese-Holley. “Some sources [like researchers at The University of Texas School of Public Health] suggest the inflammation and repair process that follows could lead to the development of cancer. That means birth control not only protects against unintended pregnancy, but also against this trauma that could cause ovarian cancer down the road.” The benefit occurs after about three to six months of use, and continues even after you stop using birth control, she adds.

There’s been mounting evidence in recent years that intrauterine devices (IUDs) may decrease the chances of ovarian cancer, as well. IUD use was associated with up to a 32 percent reduction of risk, according to a 2019 review and meta-analysis published in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Be aware that birth control comes with possible side effects, and it may not be right for everyone. Have a thoughtful discussion with your OBGYN about the pros and cons of each family planning method before deciding which one to pursue.

Don’t use tobacco products
Tobacco—and potentially, exposure to secondhand smoke—is linked to a particular type of ovarian cancer, along with many other women’s health conditions, says Reese-Holley. For example, it’s associated with lung, breast and cervical cancers, as well as osteoporosis and heart disease. When you consider all of the conditions for which it’s a risk factor, tobacco is the number one cause of premature death for women in the U.S.

For help quitting tobacco, visit Sharecare’s Quit Center or call the National Tobacco Cessation Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which is available 24 hours a day and can connect you with additional resources and support in your area.

Don’t put baby powder on feminine parts or products
Talc is a mineral found in talcum and baby powders that has stirred controversy over its possible link to ovarian cancer. Even though baby powders are typically labeled, “for external use only,” women often sprinkle it onto their panties and feminine pads, or apply it directly to their vagina. It absorbs moisture and has a pleasant scent, which helps them feel fresh.

Some talc products naturally contain asbestos, which is a known cancer-causing substance. Since the 1970s, asbestos has been removed from all talc products on the U.S. market. Even so, research is mixed on whether asbestos-free products still pose a cancer risk.

“Some studies suggest that there could be an increased association between the development of epithelial ovarian cancers when talc products are applied directly to the genital area,” says Reese-Holley. Other studies have not found an association.

Any possible danger from talc-based products is likely small, but if you’re concerned, the ACS recommends limiting your use until more research is available. 

Stick to a healthy weight
“Not only does obesity increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, it can have large effects on your menstrual cycle, which is often underestimated by many people” says Reese-Holley.

Your ovaries normally produce the two primary female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, but fat cells can also produce them. “That extra estrogen can potentially increase stimulation of various organs and can increase your risk of developing cancers, such as ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer. It could also lead to irregularities in your menstrual cycle and significantly heavier periods,” she explains.

Consider breastfeeding
Women who breastfeed may be less susceptible to both ovarian and breast cancers. “Many studies support a decreased risk with breastfeeding,” says Reese-Holley. “The degree of protection is actually proportional to how long you’re able to breastfeed. Women who make it to a year or longer experience the largest benefit.”

That amount of time is cumulative, so if you have multiple pregnancies, you can add up the number of months you breastfed in total. Getting pregnant before age 26 may protect against ovarian cancer as well. Why? Some experts believe having fewer periods overall means fewer cycles of inflammation for your ovaries, and therefore a lower cancer risk.

Medically reviewed in March 2021.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. “Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer.” January 12, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2021.
American Cancer Society. “Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors.” January 26, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2021.
UpToDate.com. “Screening for ovarian cancer.” November 3, 2020.
Alison McCook. “Do all contraceptives lower ovarian cancer risk?” Reuters. December 23, 2010.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Committee Opinion: Tobacco Use and Women’s Health.” September 2011.
American Cancer Society. “Talcum Powder and Cancer.” February 4, 2020.
University of Texas MD Anderson Center. “Breastfeeding lowers your breast cancer risk.” October 2014.
LP Feng, HL Chen, MY Shen. “Breastfeeding and the risk of ovarian cancer: a meta-analysis.” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health. 2014 Jul-Aug;59(4):428-37.
ML Gwinn, NC Lee, et al. “Pregnancy, breast feeding, and oral contraceptives and the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer.” Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 1990;43(6):559-68.
LJ Wheeler, K Desanto K, et al. “Intrauterine Device Use and Ovarian Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2019 Oct;134(4):791-800.
American Cancer Society. “Can Ovarian Cancer Be Prevented?” April 11, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2021.
T Wang, MK Townsend, et al. “Early life exposure to tobacco smoke and ovarian cancer risk in adulthood.” International Journal of Epidemiology. 2021; dyab018.
G Akhila, A Shaik, RD Kumar. “Current factors affecting the menstrual cycle.” International Journal of Research in Hospital and Clinical Pharmacy. March 4, 2020. Volume 2, Number 1.

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