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What causes ovarian cancer?

2-minute read

Our bodies are made up of billions of tiny cells. Normally, cells grow and multiply in an orderly way. New cells are only made when and where they're needed.

In cancer, this orderly process goes wrong and cells begin to grow and multiply out of control.

In ovarian cancer, cells in the ovary start to change and grow abnormally. If the cancer is not identified at an early stage, it can spread to nearby parts of the body, including other parts of the female reproductive system.

We don't know the causes of ovarian cancer, but there are risk factors that may make developing the condition more likely. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, but there may be some that can. Although these factors may increase the risk of ovarian cancer, you can still get it even if none of them apply to you.

Possible causes and risk factors of ovarian cancer

Generally, it's not possible to say what causes ovarian cancer in an individual woman. However, some features are more common among women who have developed ovarian cancer. These features are called risk factors. Having certain risk factors increases a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Having one or more risk factors for ovarian cancer doesn't mean a woman will definitely develop ovarian cancer. In fact, many women with ovarian cancer have no obvious risk factors.

Known risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • getting older: women who are over 50 are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than younger women
  • inheriting a faulty gene (called a gene mutation) that increases the risk of ovarian cancer
  • having a strong family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or some other cancers, including colorectal cancer and endometrial cancer

Only around 5-10% of all ovarian cancers are due to inherited factors.

Research suggests that the risk of ovarian cancer is slightly higher for women who:

Women have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer if:

  • they had a baby before the age of 26
  • they used oral contraceptives (the pill) for at least 3 months
  • they have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and tubal ligation (tubes tied)

Last reviewed: December 2017

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Ovarian cancer - Cancer Council Australia

Find out information about ovarian cancer, including incidence and mortality, screening, symptoms and diagnosis, causes, prevention, treatment and prognosis.

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Ovarian Cancer - Information, Treatment & Support - CanTeen

Ovarian cancer is a condition that affects the female organ responsible for hormone and egg production. Learn more about causes and treatments with CanTeen.

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Ovarian cancer | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

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Ovarian cancer fact sheet - Cancer Council Australia

It is important that ovarian cancer is detected early. Read our patient fact sheet on symptoms, screening and how to reduce the risk of cancer.

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Family history

Family history of ovarian cancer. Some women are at increased risk of ovarian cancer because they have a strong family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer. A strong family history means having several close blood relatives (on the mother’s or father’s side of the family) who have had breast or ovarian cancer, especially if this was diagnosed at an early age.

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Ovarian cancer - Lab Tests Online AU

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Treatment options

Treatment and care of people with cancer is usually provided by a team of health professionals, both medical and allied health, called a multidisciplinary team.

Read more on Cancer Australia website

About ovarian, fallopian tube and primary peritoneal cancer - Counterpart

Ovarian Cancer - About | Counterpart

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