When Should I Worry About...

Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Is There a Connection?

Oct. 18, 2019

Knowledge is power when it comes to understanding breast cancer. Being armed with the facts can help you make important decisions about your health.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer women face, other than skin cancer. One in 8 women, or about 12%, may develop breast cancer over her lifetime. Ovarian cancer is far less common, with a lifetime risk for the general population of just 2%.

“About 5-10% of breast cancers are attributed to genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. One in 400 women have the BRCA mutation, making their chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer much greater,” says Dr. Candy Arentz, breast surgeon at Houston Methodist Cancer Center.

What is hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome?

Some red flags in a patient’s medical record or family history may indicate a genetic tendency to develop ovarian cancer, including:

  • A diagnosis of breast cancer at age 50 or earlier
  • Bilateral breast cancers, either in you or in a close relative
  • A close blood relation (mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, granddaughter, niece) diagnosed with ovarian cancer
  • Father, brother, uncle or grandfather with male breast cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer diagnosed at age 60 or younger (a tumor that lacks estrogen, progesterone and the HER2/neu gene)
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
  • A previously identified BRCA mutation in the family

If any of these apply to you, you may want to talk to your doctor about genetic testing and counseling.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

“Early symptoms are subtle and mimic other benign common conditions,” says Dr. Tarrik Zaid, gynecologic oncologist at Houston Methodist Cancer Center. “But if you experience any of these for several weeks, a thorough work-up with your doctor may be needed to determine the underlying cause and to rule out the rare possibility of ovarian cancer."

  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Pelvic, abdominal or lower back pain
  • Painful intercourse
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Difficulty eating or getting full quickly


“Early detection improves prognosis and cure rates,” says Dr. Zaid. “Unfortunately, however, most women present at an advanced stage due to the vague symptoms.”

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Typically, treatment for ovarian cancer involves surgery to remove the tumor or tumors, and chemotherapy to kill remaining cancer cells. Additional therapies may include Avastin (bevacizumab), which starves the tumor of its blood supply, and PARP inhibitors, a type of targeted therapy that may improve survival rates.

“Women diagnosed with mutations prior to the onset of cancer can undergo procedures to lower their risk,” Dr. Zaid says.

“Some women at very strong risk undergo preventive (prophylactic) surgery to help avoid future cancers,” Dr. Arentz explains. “For example, a preventive mastectomy may lower future breast cancer risk as much as 90%. Oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovaries) may reduce ovarian cancer risk as much as 80-90% in women with a BRCA mutation.”

Being in control means being aware

It’s important to remember that not every woman who carries genetic mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer will develop the disease. The best approach is to be aware of your risk and discuss it with your doctor, know the symptoms and have regular screenings, such as mammograms and gynecological exams.