Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

While you may not be able to prevent ovarian cancer, there are ways you can reduce your risk. Taking birth control pills, having a tubal ligation, or undergoing a hysterectomy are helpful in this regard. Tubal ligation is the medical term for "getting your tubes tied," while a hysterectomy is the surgical removal of your uterus. Certain mutations in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 increase your risk. If you have mutations in either of these genes, removal of your ovaries and fallopian tubes may prevent ovarian cancer.

Birth control pills have been shown to decrease a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer. For example, a woman who has taken birth control pills for approximately 10 years can reduce her risk for ovarian cancer by about 80 percent. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, having children, and breastfeeding can also decrease the risk.

Because the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, it is largely unpreventable.

There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, but your level of risk may be reduced by:

  • Having both ovaries removed. This procedure, called an oophorectomy, is only performed for women who have an extremely high risk of ovarian cancer, usually only in women who have completed childbearing, but, ideally, by age 35. While it significantly reduces the risk of cancer, it doesn't entirely eliminate it. There is still a slight risk of primary peritoneal cancer, which stems from the same cells that lead to ovarian cancer.
  • Using oral contraceptives for five or more years. This can reduce your risk as much as 50 percent.
  • Having one or more children and breastfeeding. The more children you've had, the lower your risk. However, healthcare professionals do not suggest making a decision about when to have a child simply for the purpose of reducing ovarian cancer risk. Taking the pill has a greater impact on ovarian cancer risk than pregnancy.
  • Having a tubal ligation, a surgical procedure in which the fallopian tubes are tied to prevent pregnancy. Some studies show that when performed after childbearing, tubal ligation can reduce the risk for ovarian cancer up to 67 percent. However, this procedure should only be done for valid medical reasons, not solely to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Having a hysterectomy, an operation in which your uterus is removed, may also reduce your risk. However, you should not have a hysterectomy just to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. If you are having a hysterectomy for a medical reason and you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer or are over age 40, talk to your doctor about also having your ovaries removed.

No one knows for certain why tubal ligation and hysterectomy decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. One theory is that these procedures may prevent some cancer-causing substances from entering the body through the vagina and traveling through the uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries. Another is that both procedures impair blood supply to the ovaries, which is somehow protective.

Some research suggests a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer with exposure to talcum powders in the genital area.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.