New Risk Factors Identified for Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is among the sneakiest cancers.  Its symptoms can be so vague that 80 percent of women who develop it don't know they have it until it's spread to other organs. Recent studies, however, reveal new genetic clues about who's at risk. 

The National Cancer Institute says there are 21,880 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed every year, and 13,850 women die from it. Early ovarian cancer may not cause obvious symptoms. But, as the cancer grows, symptoms may include:

  • Pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs
  • A swollen or bloated abdomen
  • Nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling the need to urinate often
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding (heavy periods or bleeding after menopause)

The key to successful treatment and survival of ovarian cancer is early detection, but the vagueness of these symptoms (which could be associated with many minor and major illnesses) makes early detection particularly challenging.  Women who know their risk factors have an advantage.  They can be on the lookout because they know trouble might be on the horizon.

Experts already know that women who have a genetic mutation in one of the two breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are at the biggest risk of developing ovarian cancer. A new genetic study conducted by a consortium of cancer scientists in the United States, Europe, and Canada and published in the Journal of Nature Genetics shows further promise.  The latest study shows that single variations in the breast cancer gene sequences on chromosomes 2, 3, 8, and 17 could further increase ovarian cancer risk.  Knowing these chromosomal locations might lead scientists closer to developing individualized risk assessments for women. 

This study does not change any immediate treatment plans. Women with a known breast cancer gene mutation should already be teamed up with a gynecologist who specializes in oncology.  Together, they can evaluate her risk, develop a plan for monitoring her gynecological health, and consider choices to minimize her chance of developing ovarian cancer.  This new study brings us one step closer to decoding the mystery of ovarian cancer. 

Talk to your gynecologist about your family's breast cancer history and ask if genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 are appropriate for you.




Nature Genetics 42, 880 - 884 (2010)
Published online: 19 September 2010 | doi:10.1038/ng.666

Multiple authors

Common variants at 19p13 are associated with susceptibility to ovarian cancer


The Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium