Ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society. Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage.
Unlike breast cancer and cervical cancer, where we have adequate screening options to aid in early detection; the existing screening tools for ovarian cancer are limited in their effectiveness. Still, there are some extra measures that can be taken if you are determined to be at high risk.
Several risk factors can contribute to ovarian cancer, including age, reproductive history, and lifestyle choices. Most cases of ovarian cancer are not hereditary, but up to 24% of invasive ovarian cancers are.
The Truth About Heredity
According to Sarah Adelsperger, MS, LCGC, licensed and board certified genetic counselor with ProMedica Cancer Institute, “One of the greatest misconceptions about common female cancers, including ovarian cancer, is that a cancer-predisposing gene mutation can only be passed to a woman from her mother’s side of the family.” This is not the case.
We’re all born with two sets of genes; one set from our mother and another from our father. You may be familiar with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, but there are others too. “If either of your parents inherited a gene mutation from one of their parents, there’s a 50% chance that you also inherited a gene mutation. This is what’s called hereditary cancer syndrome,” explains Adelsperger.
It’s possible for an inherited gene mutation to present a higher risk for ovarian and breast cancer in female family members, but a higher risk for male breast and prostate cancer in male family members.
Genetic Testing and Counseling
If you do have a personal or family history of ovarian cancer, you may wish to seek genetic counseling. Especially for women who have had invasive ovarian cancer, genetic counseling and testing are highly recommended.
For example, suppose a woman who’s been diagnosed with ovarian cancer chooses to go through genetic testing. Her genetic (blood test) results show that she does have a gene mutation highly linked to ovarian cancer. A genetic counselor, like Adelsperger, will pull together these test results, her personal health history, and family health history—using a family tree drawing called a “pedigree”—and really evaluate the woman’s future risk for cancers.
“Based on the results, genetic counselors discuss medical management recommendations based upon available guidelines, which could include extra screenings or preventive surgeries,” Adelsperger explains.
The final results could also be valuable for the woman to share with her family. If a woman is found to carry a gene mutation, there is a 50% chance that her siblings, children and parents have the same gene mutation too, regardless of their gender.
If any of her family members decide to go through genetic testing and the same gene mutation is found in their DNA, a genetic counselor can dive deeper into their individual histories, too. “We want to help each family member understand his or her personal risk for certain cancers and recommend any proactive measures to take,” says Adelsperger.
In some cases, where families have a known gene mutation, negative genetic testing results can provide some reassurance.
If you’d like more information about ProMedica Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genetics Program, please call 419-824-5073.