Who gets ovarian cancer? A woman can inherit an increased risk for this disease, particularly if a "first degree" relative (a mother, sister or daughter) has or had ovarian, breast or colon cancer. In fact, if she has a strong family history of ovarian cancer, she is more likely to develop the disease at an early age (younger than 50). Other risk factors include:

  • Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish ethnicity, if the condition has already affected one or more family members
  • a defect in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes can also increase a woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer by a small percentage (read more about genetic susceptibility at the end of this section)
  • a personal history of breast, endometrial or colon cancer
  • uninterrupted ovulation caused by infertility or no pregnancies
  • a high-fat diet
  • obesity
  • infertility
  • starting your periods at a young age, or going through menopause at an older than average age
  • use of talcum powder on the genital area — however, evidence supporting this risk factor is conflicting
  • Women who use fertility drugs have a higher-than-average risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Of all the risk factors, the most significant is a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer. However, it's important to keep risk factors in perspective. Most women with risk factors for ovarian cancer will never actually get ovarian cancer. And, most women with ovarian cancer do not have any strong risk factors for the disease. Even with significant risk factors such as family history, the overall chances of getting ovarian cancer are still small. Despite that news, you should always be aware of the risks and, as a preventive measure, consult with your health care professional if you have any risk factors.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable screening tool available for ovarian cancer. If you have any unusual symptoms, consult with your health care professional. Diagnosis starts with a pelvic exam and Pap smear, a relatively painless test that involves taking a scraping of cells from your cervix and examining them under a microscope. Although the Pap doesn't detect ovarian cancer, it may detect cancer cells that have migrated to the uterine cervix from the ovaries or abnormal cells in the uterine cervix. After the Pap smear, other tests your health care professional may perform include:

  • CA-125 blood test, which can signal the presence of advanced ovarian cancer; however, experts do not consider this a stand-alone, reliable test. This test is used to determine the level of a tumor marker called CA-125, but is not a screening option because it is unreliable.