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Ovarian Cancer

Ideas about causes of ovarian cancer

Some ovarian cancers are caused by inherited genetic mutations (for example, BRCA1/2, HNPCC) (see 'Family history and genetics'). However, the cause of most ovarian cancer is unknown. Many women we interviewed had heard that it seems to be more common in women who have not had children and less common among those who have used oral contraception. Some wondered whether this was connected to the number of menstrual cycles a woman has in her life. 

 

She thought she should have been at low risk of developing ovarian cancer.

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She thought she should have been at low risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 58
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And do you have any ideas about what might cause ovarian cancer and why you should have got it?

No, none at all. Because I understood if you'd been on the Pill and you had a child, that the risks of ovarian cancer were a lot less. I was on the Pill for many years, I only had one child, but no, I thought I should have been in a very low group, risk group.
 

Stimulation of the ovary by the drugs used during infertility treatment is also known to slightly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women who had such treatment had asked their doctors about this. 

 

Wonders about infertility treatment as a possible cause of her ovarian cancer.

Wonders about infertility treatment as a possible cause of her ovarian cancer.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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The drugs during IVF initially stop all hormone production and then re-stimulate your ovaries so there has always been a bit of  question mark over whether those drugs can actually play a part within ovarian cancer. And no matter how many doctors you ask you'll never get a definitive answer for that one and I don't think it's known. There is research ongoing at the minute to see if there is a link.  

I personally think that it may have been a link in my case although I also think that there may have been an underlying reason for those drugs affecting me because I was in a support group for couples who were trying to have children and having IVF and I know a lot of people and they've had IVF and yet I'm the only one that actually was then diagnosed with ovarian cancer. So statistically, you know, it may be linked but it's possibly still quite small, you know, quite a small chance of it.  

Some women wondered whether hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could have increased their chances of developing ovarian cancer. Others asked whether events in their gynaecological history (such as ectopic pregnancy, tubal surgery, endometriosis or untreated ovarian cysts) could have had an effect. A woman regretted not having her ovaries removed when she had her hysterectomy some years before her ovarian cancer developed.

 

Wonders if HRT might have caused her ovarian cancer.

Wonders if HRT might have caused her ovarian cancer.

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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Just before I was diagnosed I'd been in a study on osteoporosis where I'd been put on HRT and I wondered whether there were any connection. I'd been on HRT for two years I think but no one has ever suggested that. I know it can increase the likelihood of breast cancer, and of course if my cancer is the sort that might be connected with breast cancer, I suppose it could. It's supposed to protect you against some cancers I believe, but I, no I don't know.

Many women talked about having had stressful episodes in their lives before their cancer diagnosis. Some believed this had been a possible cause, whilst others were not convinced since stressful life events happen to everyone. One woman felt that it wasn't the stress itself that caused her problems but her tendency to become angry in many situations. Some women felt that stress could have been a contributory rather than a direct cause, for instance it could have been the final trigger in a series of events needed for cancer to develop, or it could have made them tired and run down leaving their immune system vulnerable to attack. 

 

Thinks that stress may have triggered her cancer.

Thinks that stress may have triggered her cancer.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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Okay, and do you have ideas about causes of ovarian cancer and why you should have developed it?

I believe that stress is a major cause of disease in general, but talking, thinking about my case in particular yes I've had a lot of stress following the break up of my marriage and subsequent divorce and general stresses that one has in life, but it was a very stressful period of time and last year a very close good friend had a heart attack and died one night. It was an enormous shock and I took it very badly, and I do think that, while it didn't cause my cancer, the cancer was waiting for something like that to happen, and it happened and it's just said 'whoopee chaps, we've got her, another one'.

Several women believed that cancer was caused by a combination of factors such as family history, lifestyle and a trigger such as a virus or stress. One woman described this as like the line-up of three cherries on a fruit machine. A few suspected that an illness (for example a virus, ME, pleurisy) had weakened their immune systems, or could have been an, as yet unknown, bacterial or viral cause of ovarian cancer. Other ideas of possible causes included deodorants, environmental pollution, radiation, genetic mutations, poverty and poor diet in childhood and 'everything from talcum powder to yoghurt'.

 

Wonders if her cancer might have been triggered by a severe bout of food poisoning.

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Wonders if her cancer might have been triggered by a severe bout of food poisoning.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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Do you have any ideas about what causes ovarian cancer, why you should have developed it?

No, but I mean we've mentioned this to various doctors and things like that, and you know. People look at you as if you've got two heads. But back in 1990, 1990? 1991, we went on holiday to Corfu, my husband and I, and we were both absolutely flattened with food poisoning, really severely. As was pretty much everyone else in the hotel. To the point where, in the entire week, we didn't come out of the hotel. Really really bad. And ever since then we've both had problems in' I mean I developed this problem with my inner ear and balance and vertigo, which is related in some way to the stomach, because, you know, stomach affects balance and, you know, things like that, supposedly, I mean, I've read about that. 

He had, he's had bladder problems, all manner of bladder problems. And then I get this, you know, problem with ovarian' this ovarian problem. And cystitis as well, which is I suppose is some ways is all in the same kind of area. And you know, I mean they may all just be completely coincidental, but we were two fairly fit people who did quite a lot of sport and exercise, we, you know, eat fairly healthily, we don't smoke, we sort of drink in moderation, you know. And you know, things happen, with viruses and bugs and they get in your system and, you know, bowels are very close to all the female bits and bowels are close to the bladder' Don't know, that's my feeling. 

Other women wondered whether unhealthy aspects of their lifestyle may have been a factor, such as smoking, the Western diet, or being overweight. However, women who said they had lived a healthy life, or did not have any of the known risk factors, sometimes felt cheated because it hadn't stopped them getting cancer. A woman who did not think that ovarian cancer was associated with any particular lifestyle said that at least she did not need to feel guilty because there wasn't anything she should have done to avoid it.


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Last reviewed June 2016.

Last updated June 2016.

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