Ovarian Cancer: How History Predicts the Future

By Wendy Bacigalupi-Bednarz, Editorial Contributor

Gynecologic oncologists are leveraging family histories at the genetic level to make timely ovarian cancer diagnoses. “One of the most powerful predictors of ovarian cancer risks is the knowledge of family history,” says Dr. Veronica Schimp, chief of gynecologic oncology at Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center.

Some ovarian cancer cases are hereditary, passed on to family members through inherited gene mutations. In fact, about 5 percent to 10 percent of women are genetically at risk for developing ovarian or breast cancer. Ninety percent of ovarian cancer cases are non-inherited or “sporadic.” Hereditary ovarian cancers more often develop earlier in life than non-inherited cases.

Different types of gene changes or mutations can trigger ovarian cancer. They are referred to as germline, where mutations are passed on to offspring through reproductive cells, and somatic, where DNA changes occur within cells after conception.

Other risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • Age
  • Having few or no children
  • Early onset menstruation
  • Late-age menopause
  • Breaks in oral contraceptive use

According to Dr. Schimp, five consecutive years of oral contraceptive use is a protective measure associated with reduced ovarian cancer risks.

Recognizing genetic risk indicators, such as mutations in the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 tumor suppressor genes and Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer syndrome), is key to getting a timely diagnosis and life-saving treatment. Based on family history and general risk factors, women should seek out genetic counseling or testing if they receive abnormal results during a medical exam.

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