In 2023 alone, the American Cancer Society estimates about 19,710 women will be newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a type of gynecologic cancer. While this is much lower than the 297,790 women estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2023, ovarian cancer is often more deadly and is not talked about as frequently. Therefore, knowing your risk for ovarian cancer and taking precautions before a diagnosis can help save your life and the lives of your family members.
Most ovarian cancer happens sporadically, with no clear reason why the cancer started. There are various lifestyle factors that can increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer, including being overweight, having children later in life or not at all, or taking certain medications such as hormone therapy after menopause. Among risk factors for ovarian cancer, age is the most important. However, having a family history of ovarian or other types of cancers can also increase your risk.
Related Reading: Do You Know Your Family Medical History?
Hereditary Factors that Could Increase Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer
We have several thousand different genes in our bodies, and each of these genes has a specialized job to perform. Some of these genes protect us from developing cancer. When one of these genes isn’t working properly, we can eventually see cancer start to develop. For someone with a hereditary cancer predisposition syndrome, one of these genes which protects us from cancer is not working from birth.
Researchers have identified numerous genes that can play a role in ovarian cancer development. Two of the most common genes involved in hereditary ovarian cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Changes in these genes can cause Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome (HBOC). HBOC increases the risk for ovarian cancer as well as breast cancer and other cancer types. Additionally, if someone with ovarian cancer is found to have a change in BRCA1 or BRCA2, they may qualify for different treatment options.
Other genes, such as the five genes involved in Lynch syndrome, can also increase the risk for ovarian cancer. Lynch syndrome primarily increases the risk of colorectal and uterine cancers, but it can also increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Beyond HBOC and Lynch syndrome, there are additional genes that can play a role in the development of ovarian cancer, including BRIP1, PTEN, RAD51C, and STK11, among others. Sitting down with a genetic counselor can help you to assess if you or a family member could be at increased risk of having a change in one of these genes.
Why Consider Genetic Testing for Ovarian Cancer?
Identifying if you are at an increased risk for ovarian cancer could help you and your doctors make decisions about your health. There are no standard tests to screen for ovarian cancer, such as a mammogram for breast cancer or a colonoscopy for colon cancer. Since many of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer mimic the symptoms of other less-threatening health concerns, ovarian cancer is often detected in later stages. Identifying if you are at an increased risk for ovarian cancer through genetic testing could help guide screening or result in a recommendation for surgery to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes.
How is Genetic Testing Done, and Who Should Get it?
Genetic testing is done on a blood or saliva sample. The test looks at many of the genes associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer and other types of cancer. Genetic testing is typically recommended for a person diagnosed with ovarian cancer, as their genetic test results could impact treatment and provide the most valuable information in terms of risks to other family members. All patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer should talk to their doctors about having genetic testing.
Many people could benefit from genetic screening for ovarian cancer, especially the following:
- Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age
- Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer who have family members diagnosed with ovarian, breast, colon, uterine, or other types of cancer
- Individuals with close family members diagnosed with ovarian, breast, colon, uterine, or other types of cancer
- Individuals with a close relative who has tested positive for a genetic change known to be associated with an increased risk for ovarian cancer
*close relatives (parents, siblings, children, nieces/nephews, aunts/uncles, grandparents, first-cousins)
If you think genetic testing for ovarian cancer risk may be beneficial for you or your family, talk to your healthcare provider about being referred for genetic counseling. During the appointment, a genetic counselor, or another healthcare professional, will sit down and work with you to provide a detailed overview of genetics and how it relates to ovarian cancer. They will discuss the benefits and limitations of genetic testing and work with you to help you make the best decision for you and your family. If genetic testing is ordered, your genetic counseling provider will discuss your results and how they impact your health and the health of your family members. Your genetic counseling provider will share your results with your oncology care team to help guide any possible treatment strategies.
At Virginia Oncology Associates, we offer a range of services for patients who have cancer or may be at increased risk of developing cancer. Genetic counseling and testing are just some of the many tools we use to serve the best interest of our patients. Find a location near you to learn more about scheduling an appointment with one of our genetic counseling providers. Our cancer centers are located in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton, Williamsburg, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Newport News, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Updated January 31, 2023.