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HEALTHY-NUTRITION NATURAL SPORT

Preventing ovarian cancer: Should women consider removing fallopian tubes?

3-D graphic of female reproductive system showing a fallopian tube and ovary and part of the uterus in orange and yellow

Should a woman consider having her fallopian tubes removed to lower her risk for developing ovarian cancer? Recent recommendations from the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA), endorsed by the Society for Gynecologic Oncology, encourage this strategy, if women are finished having children and would be undergoing gynecologic surgery anyway for other reasons.

Why is this new guidance being offered?

Ovarian cancer claims about 13,000 lives each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The new guidance builds on established advice for women with high-risk genetic mutations or a strong family history of ovarian cancer.

This idea isn’t new for women at average risk for ovarian cancer, either: in 2019, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) floated this strategy in a committee opinion.

A Harvard expert agrees the approach is sound, considering established evidence that many cases of aggressive ovarian cancers arise from cells in the fallopian tubes.

“We’ve known for a long time that many hereditary cases of ovarian cancer likely originate in lesions in the fallopian tubes,” says Dr. Katharine Esselen, a gynecologic oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Although we group all of these cancers together and call them ovarian cancer, a lot actually start in the fallopian tubes.”

Can ovarian cancer be detected early through symptoms or screening?

No — which helps fuel these recommendations.

Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect. Symptoms tend to be vague and could be related to many other health problems. Signs include bloating, pelvic pain or discomfort, changes in bowel or bladder habits, feeling full earlier when eating, fatigue, unusual discharge or bleeding, and pain during sex.

Disappointing results from a large 2021 study in the United Kingdom reported in The Lancet show that lowering the risks of a late-stage diagnosis isn’t easy. The trial tracked more than 200,000 women for an average of 16 years. It found that screening average-risk women with ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test doesn’t reduce deaths from the disease. By itself, the CA-125 blood test isn’t considered reliable for screening because it’s not accurate or sensitive enough to detect ovarian cancer.

Only 10% to 20% of patients are diagnosed at early stages of ovarian cancer, before a tumor spreads, Dr. Esselen notes. “There’s never been a combination of screenings that has reliably identified the majority of these cancers early, when they’re more treatable,” she says.

What does it mean to be at higher risk for ovarian cancer?

Family history is the top risk factor for the disease, which is diagnosed in nearly 20,000 American women annually. A woman is considered at higher risk of ovarian cancer if her mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, or daughter has had the disease.

Additionally, inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene raise risk considerably, according to the National Cancer Institute. (These mutations are more common among certain groups, including people of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.) While about 1.2% of women overall will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime, up to 17% of those with a BRCA2 mutation and up to 44% with a BRCA1 mutation will do so by ages 70 to 80.

How much can surgery lower the odds of ovarian cancer?

It’s not clear that all women — even those not scheduled for surgery — should undergo removal of their fallopian tubes to reduce this risk once they finish having children, Dr. Esselen says. This surgery can’t totally eliminate the possibility of ovarian cancer — and surgery carries its own risks. She recommends discussing options with your doctor depending on your level of risk for this disease:

For those at average risk for ovarian cancer: Available data seem to support the idea of removing the fallopian tubes. Studies of women who underwent tubal ligation (“tying the tubes”) or removal to avoid future pregnancies indicate their future risks of ovarian cancer dropped by 25% to 65% compared to their peers. And if a woman is already undergoing gynecologic surgery, such as a hysterectomy, the potential benefits likely outweigh the risks.

Before menopause, removing the fallopian tubes while leaving the ovaries in place is preferable to removing both. That’s because estrogen produced by the ovaries can help protect against health problems such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Leaving the ovaries also prevents suddenly experiencing symptoms of menopause.

“The fallopian tubes don’t produce any hormones and aren’t really needed for anything other than transporting the egg,” she says. “So there’s little downside to removing them at the time of another gynecologic procedure if a woman is no longer interested in fertility.”

For those at high risk for ovarian cancer: “In a world where we don’t have good screening tools for ovarian cancer, it makes sense to do something as dramatic as surgery to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes when a woman is known to be at higher risk because of a strong family history or a BRCA gene mutations,” Dr. Esselen says.

Currently, preliminary evidence suggests it may be safe to proactively remove the fallopian tubes while delaying removal of the ovaries to closer to the time of menopause to avoid an early menopause. However, it’s unclear how much this procedure lowers the odds of developing ovarian cancer.

“Generally, the findings so far have focused on the safety of the surgery itself and women’s quality of life,” Dr. Esselen says. “Long-term data in high-risk women takes a great number of years to accumulate. We need this data to know whether removing the fallopian tubes alone is equally effective in preventing ovarian cancer as removing the tubes and ovaries.”

Discussing your options is key

Ultimately, Dr. Esselen says that she advocates OCRA’s new recommendations. “For anyone who’s completed childbearing, if I’m doing surgery that wouldn’t necessarily include routinely removing their fallopian tubes, I’m offering it,” she says. “A woman and her doctor should always discuss this at the time she’s having gynecologic surgery.”

About the Author

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Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio View all posts by Maureen Salamon

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HEALTHY-NUTRITION NATURAL SPORT

Healthier planet, healthier people

A crystal globe with countries etched on, circled by stethoscope with red heart; Earth health and our health connect

Everything is connected. You’ve probably heard that before, but it bears repeating. Below are five ways to boost both your individual health and the health of our planet — a combination that environmentalists call co-benefits.

How your health and planetary health intersect

Back in 1970, Earth Day was founded as a day of awareness about environmental issues. Never has awareness of our environment seemed more important than now. The impacts of climate change on Earth — fires, storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels, species extinction, and more — directly or indirectly threaten our well-being, especially for those most vulnerable. For example, air pollution from fossil fuels and fires contributes to lung problems and hospitalizations. Geographic and seasonal boundaries for ticks and mosquitoes, which are carriers of infectious diseases, expand as regions warm.

The concept of planetary health acknowledges that the ecosystem and our health are inextricably intertwined. Actions and events have complex downstream effects: some are expected, others are surprising, and many are likely unrecognized. While individual efforts may seem small, collectively they can move the needle — even ever so slightly — in the right direction.

Five ways to improve personal and planetary health

Adopt plant-forward eating.

This means increasing plant-based foods in your diet while minimizing meat. Making these types of choices lowers the risks of heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and many cancers. Compared to meat-based meals, plant-based meals also have many beneficial effects for the planet. For example, for the same amount of protein, plant-based meals have a lower carbon footprint and use fewer natural resources like land and water.

Remember, not all plants are equal.

Plant foods also vary greatly, both in terms of their nutritional content and in their environmental impact. Learning to read labels can help you determine the nutritional value of foods. It’s a bit harder to learn about the environmental impact of specific foods, since there are regional factors. But to get a general sense, Our World in Data has a collection of eye-opening interactive graphs about various environmental impacts of different foods.

Favor active transportation.

Choose an alternative to driving such as walking, biking, or using public transportation when possible. Current health recommendations encourage adults to get 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity physical activity, and two sessions of muscle strengthening activity. Regular physical activity improves mental health, bone health, and weight management. It also reduces risks of heart disease, some cancers, and falls in older adults. Fewer miles driven in gas-powered vehicles means cleaner air, decreased carbon emissions contributing to climate change, and less air pollution (known to cause asthma exacerbations and many other diseases).

Start where you are and work up to your level of discomfort.

Changes that work for one person may not work for another. Maybe you will pledge to eat one vegan meal each week, or maybe you will pledge to limit beef to once a week. Maybe you will try out taking the bus to work, or maybe you will bike to work when it’s not winter. Set goals for yourself that are achievable but are also a challenge.

Talk about it.

It might feel as though these actions are small, and it might feel daunting for any one individual trying to make a difference. Sharing your thoughts about what matters to you and about what you are doing might make you feel less isolated and help build community. Building community contributes to well-being and resilience.

Plus, if you share your pledges and aims with one person, and that person does the same, then your actions are amplified. Who knows, maybe one of those folks along the way might be the employee who decides what our children eat from school menus, or a city planner for pedestrian walkways and bike lanes!

About the Author

photo of Wynne Armand, MD

Wynne Armand, MD, Contributor

Dr. Wynne Armand is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where she provides primary care; an assistant professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School; and associate director of the MGH Center for the Environment and … See Full Bio View all posts by Wynne Armand, MD