The causes of ovarian cancer

Unlike the cervix or breast, which are accessible, the ovaries reside deep within the body. This makes it very difficult to get to the ovaries and learn a great deal about the early events that occur in the development of ovarian cancer.

We’ve known for some time that the factors that prevent ovulation, such as pregnancy, breast feeding and the use of birth control pills, decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. We’ve never really understood before why that’s the case, however. Study found that among women with ovarian cancer, those who had a high number of ovulatory cycles in their lifetime were much more likely to have mutations in the p53 gene relative to women with low numbers of ovulatory cycles. This study begins to clarify why ovulation over a lifetime can predispose women to ovarian cancer. In the meantime, it’s important to emphasize to the general public that we have known for some time that there are several things a woman can do to protect herself against ovarian cancer. For example, women who have three children have about half the risk of ovarian cancer compared to women who have never had children. Similarly, women who have used birth control pills for five to ten years also have about half the risk of ovarian cancer. The protective effect of pregnancy and the pill against ovarian cancer have generally been under-appreciated by most women.

Birth control pills have been available now for about 40 years. Initially when these medications were introduced, there was a great deal of concern about some of the side effects that went along them. Specifically women who are older and particularly those who smoked had serious side effects, such as strokes and heart attacks. Because of that, the pill got a bad name early on. Fortunately, birth control pills that are now available are much safer than those initial pills. Women who have regular periods and never get pregnant or use the birth control pill are at the highest risk of developing ovarian cancer. Using birth control pills for this group of women is not only a very effective contraceptive, but it does protect against ovarian cancer and the development of endometrial cancer as well (but this protection is not 100 percent).

About five percent of ovarian cancers may have a hereditary basis. So women who have a strong family history of ovarian cancer should be concerned. Most ovarian cancers, probably more than 90 percent, are not hereditary, however. The highest risk group in the general population would be women who have never had children or used birth control pills. All of the contraceptive methods have different advantages and disadvantages. It’s best if each individual woman discusses their situation with their own private physician. That physician as a professional can then weigh the pros and cons of different methods for each woman and come up with the best contraceptive method for her. For many women in the United States, birth control pills are an excellent choice. On the other hand, there may still be some women who are older or who smoke or have other reasons why they wouldn’t want to take birth control pills. For those women, methods such as the intrauterine device or IUD, foam and condoms might be better choices for them.

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