Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women aged between 35 and 74, after breast, bowel, lung and womb cancers. Unfortunately it is known as the "silent killer" as the symptoms are hard to detect until it is in an advanced stage. There are currently no effective screening methods for ovarian cancer, but knowing more about it can help you decide if and when to discuss your risk with your doctor.

Although the actual cause of epithelial ovarian cancer is not known, some lifestyle factors are shown to increase the risk, while other factors appear to reduce the risk. Read on to assess your potential risk, and if necessary make suitable changes to minimize your risk of contracting this insidious disease.

Known Factors that Increase the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

Women who are more than 25 pounds overweight are at increased risk of ovarian cancer. In studies, obese women have a 30% higher chance of having ovarian cancer, compared to those at a normal weight for their height. Some research also shows that taller women are more predisposed to this cancer than shorter women.

Being infertile or possibly having fertility treatment can increase the risk. When the ovaries produce an egg, the surface of the ovary releases the egg from its surface and the cells then divide to repair the gap. The more eggs produced, the more the cells must divide and the higher the chance that cancer may develop, as cell-division is how all cancers begin.

In a Swedish study it was found that women with endometriosis were at a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer, and those under the age of 29 suffering with ovarian cysts were at twice the risk of ovarian cancer in later life. Similarly, women who had had an ovary removed had a nine time increased risk overall.

Dairy products have been show to increase the risk of ovarian cancer considerably. Those who consume more than 30 grams of lactose per day (one glass of milk or a cup of ice cream) increase their risk by 20%.

About one in ten ovarian cancers are thought to be caused by genetic family history, particularly if close family members have developed ovarian or breast cancer. However, most cases are due to gene changes that develop during a women's life.

Known Factors that Decrease the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

Taking the contraceptive pill for over 15 years appears to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by a massive 58%. Even those who only take the pill for one to four years lower the risk by 22%. Taking the pill halts the production of eggs and therefore lessens the cell division that takes place to heal the damage to the surface of the ovary.

Those on a high fiber diet have shown in studies that the risk was reduced by 20% if they ate more than 38-77 grams of fiber per day. Fiber apparently lowers the production of sex hormones, which decreases the risk of ovarian cancer, so make sure your diet is high in prunes, raisins, berry fruits, pumpkin, rye, bran flakes, wheat bread, pecans, navy and pinto beans, lentils, kidney beans and other legumes.

Finally, having children and breast feeding both appear to lessen the risk of ovarian cancer. So weigh up your risk, make changes where you can, and if necessary consult a doctor for further advice.