Every year in the UK, around 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and more than 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. In this blog, our editor Elissia explains the risk factors for these cancers, particularly family history. It also includes some of the signs and symptoms to look out for.

Risk factors and causes

We don’t know exactly what causes ovarian or prostate cancer, but there are some factors that may increase your risk:

Ovarian cancer 

  • Age – ovarian cancer is more common in women who are over 35. More than half of all cases are in women over 65.
  • Weight – being very overweight can increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Smoking – smoking can increase your risk of one type of ovarian cancer (mucinous), and other cancers.
  • Medical conditions – if you’ve had breast cancer before or if you have endometriosis or diabetes you may be at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Hormonal factors – doctors think that the number of times a woman releases an egg (ovulates) may be linked to ovarian cancer risk.
  • Family history – ovarian cancer can sometimes run in families.

Prostate cancer

  • Age – more than 1 in 3 men (36%) who are diagnosed with prostate cancer are aged 75 or over.
  • Ethnicity – men from certain ethnic groups have a higher chance of developing prostate cancer. Black men from an African-Caribbean or African background are three times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men. Asian men are the least likely to develop prostate cancer.
  • Weight – men who are overweight may be more likely to have a fast-growing prostate cancer or advanced prostate cancer.
  • Height – taller men may have an increased risk of prostate cancer.
  • Family history – prostate cancer can sometimes run in families.

Family history and ovarian cancer risk

Most ovarian cancers aren’t caused by inherited genes, and most women who develop ovarian cancer don’t have a family history of it. But sometimes it can run in families and it’s thought that around 5–15 of every 100 ovarian cancers are because of a change in a gene that’s running in the family.

Generally, the chance of there being a family link is higher if:

  • a number of your family members have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, or a related cancer such as breast cancer
  • those family members are closely related
  • they were diagnosed at a young age.

Family history and prostate cancer risk

Most prostate cancers aren’t caused by inherited genes, and most men who develop prostate cancer don’t have a family history of it. But it can run in families – fewer than 1 in 10 prostate cancers are linked to inherited genes.

The risk of developing prostate cancer is higher if:

  • one of your first-degree relatives (father, brother or son) developed prostate cancer at 60 or younger
  • two or more close relatives (father, brother, son, grandfather, uncle or nephew) on the same side of your family have prostate cancer.

Knowing the signs of ovarian or prostate cancer

If you notice any of the following symptoms, talk to your GP. Most of the time, these changes won’t mean that you have cancer. But it’s important to get them checked out.

Ovarian cancer

Talk to your GP if you have these symptoms at least 12 days in a month or if they continue for three weeks:

  • feeling bloated (swollen tummy)
  • feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
  • pain or discomfort in the lower tummy area and/or back
  • needing to pass urine more often or more urgently (feeling you can’t hold on)
  • changes in bowel habit.

Prostate cancer

Talk to your GP if you:

  • have a poor flow of urine, perhaps stopping and starting
  • have difficulty in starting to pass urine
  • pass urine more often than usual, especially at night
  • feel an urgent need to pass urine
  • feel you’ve not fully emptied your bladder after passing urine
  • have pain when passing urine
  • notice blood in your urine or semen.

If you’d like more information

If you’re worried that ovarian or prostate cancer might run in your family, you may find our information on inherited cancers or cancer genetics helpful.

We also have more detailed information about ovarian and prostate cancers.

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