Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Peritoneal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing this type of tumor. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a woman's risk of developing ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer.

  • Family history. A strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer puts women at higher risk for ovarian, fallopian tube and peritoneal cancer. Doctors believe this is because many of these families have genetic mutations (harmful changes in the gene) that are passed from generation to generation (see Genetics, below). If you are concerned that ovarian cancer may run in your family, it is important to get an accurate family history, including breast cancers in the family. By understanding your family history, you and your doctor can take steps to reduce your risk and be proactive about your health.

  • Genetics. About 10% to 15% of ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancers occur because a genetic mutation (harmful change) has been passed down within a family. A mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. A woman with a BRCA1 mutation has approximately a 40% lifetime risk of breast cancer and a woman with a BRCA2 mutation has approximately a 10% to 20% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. (A woman with an average risk has only a 1% to 2% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer). While less common, it is possible that BRCA-related ovarian cancer can occur in women who do not have a family history of either breast or ovarian cancer. It is recommended that all women with serous ovarian cancer under the age of 70 should consider genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, the genes related to Lynch Syndrome (see below), and other cancer risk genes even if they don’t have a family history. Read more about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in this website’s section on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

  • Genetic conditions. There are several other genetic conditions that cause ovarian cancer. Some of the most common include:

    • Lynch syndrome. Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, increases a woman's risk of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. It is caused by mutations in several different genes. Lynch syndrome increases the risk of colorectal cancer, as well as several other cancers.

    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS). PJS is caused by a specific genetic mutation. The syndrome is associated with multiple polyps in the digestive tract that become noncancerous tumors and increased pigmentation (dark spots on the skin) on the face and hands. PJS raises the risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and several other types of cancer.

    • Nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome (NBCCS). Women with NBCCS, also called Gorlin syndrome, have an increased risk of developing fibromas. These are benign fibrous tumors of the ovaries. There is a small risk that these fibromas could develop into a type of ovarian cancer called fibrosarcoma. People with NBCCS often have multiple basal cell carcinomas and jaw cysts and may develop medulloblastoma (a type of brain tumor) in childhood.

    • Li-Fraumeni and Ataxia-Telangiectasia. Women with Li-Fraumeni syndrome or ataxia-telangiectasia may have a slightly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

    There may be other hereditary syndromes linked to these types of cancer, and research in this area is ongoing. Only genetic testing can determine whether a woman has a genetic mutation. Most experts strongly recommend that women who are considering genetic testing first talk with a genetic counselor. This expert is trained to explain the risks and benefits of genetic testing.

  • Age. A woman’s risk of developing ovarian, fallopian tube and peritoneal cancer increases with age. Women of all ages have a risk of these cancers, but women over 50 are more likely to develop the malignancies. The average age of women diagnosed with these cancers is about 60 to 62 years.

  • Weight and height. Recent studies show that women who were obese in early adulthood are 50% more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Women who are obese are more likely to die from the disease.

  • Endometriosis. This is when the inside lining of a woman’s uterus grows outside of the uterus, affecting other nearby organs. This condition can cause several problems, but effective treatment is available. Researchers are continuing to study whether endometriosis is a risk factor for ovarian cancer. It may increase the risk of certain types of ovarian cancer, including clear cell and endometrioid ovarian cancers.

  • Ethnicity. Women of North American, Northern European, or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Reproductive history. Women who have never had children, have unexplained infertility (the inability to bear a child), or have not taken birth control pills may have an increased risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.

  • Hormone replacement therapy. Women who have taken estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause may have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. The risk becomes higher the longer a woman uses the therapy. The risk decreases over time after the therapy ends.

  • Fertility drugs. Research studies have shown that use of fertility drugs do not increase the risk of ovarian cancer.


Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to study what factors cause these types of cancer. Although there is no proven way to prevent these diseases completely, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

Research has shown that certain factors may reduce a woman's risk of developing ovarian and fallopian tube cancer:

  • Taking birth control pills. Women who took oral contraceptives for 3 or more years are 30% to 50% less likely to develop ovarian cancer. The decrease in risk may last for 30 years after a woman stops taking the pills.

  • Breastfeeding. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower her risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.

  • Pregnancy. The more full-term pregnancies a woman has had, the lower her risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.

  • Surgical procedures. Women who have had a hysterectomy or a tubal ligation may have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. A hysterectomy is the removal of the uterus and, sometimes, the cervix. Tubal ligation is having the fallopian tubes “tied” or closed surgically to prevent pregnancy. Doctors recommend a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, which is the removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes, for women with a high risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.

For women with high-risk genetic mutations such as BRCA1, BRCA2, the genes related to Lynch Syndrome, and others, having the ovaries and fallopian tubes removed after childbearing is sometimes done to prevent breast and ovarian cancers. This can reduce ovarian cancer risk by 70% to 96%. If performed before natural menopause, it may there may be a 40% to 70% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer.

It is very important for women considering preventive surgery to talk with their doctors and genetic counselors, in order to understand the risks and side effects of the surgery in the context of their personal risks of developing ovarian cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. You may use the menu to choose a different section to continue reading in this guide.