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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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Easy ways to shop for healthful, cost-conscious foods

A dark background with brightly colored foods, such as tomato, orange, mushroom, cheese, eggs, celery, watermelon, salmon

Three months into the year is a good time to recalculate if you’ve been slacking on your resolution to eat healthy. And if you’ll be leaving home base or school soon and foraging for yourself (plus or minus roommates), it’s a great time to learn about healthy, low-cost choices for your grocery list.

The basics: A weekly shop

A healthy diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans or lentils), whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products. Trying to fill your cart with all of those goodies can feel overwhelming. But just think in terms of twos.

“Get two fruits and two vegetables of different colors, and two types of lean protein — such as fresh, frozen, or canned fish, chicken or lean ground turkey, or plant-based options,” suggests Nancy Oliveira, a registered dietitian and manager of the Nutrition and Wellness Service at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Oliveira also recommends getting two foods in each of these categories on your weekly shopping trip:

  • plant proteins, such as canned or dried beans, tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, or unsalted nuts or seeds
  • whole grains, such as whole-grain bread, whole-grain pasta, brown or black rice, quinoa, or farro
  • dairy or nondairy milk items, such as nonfat Greek yogurt or cheese.

Go ahead and add one or two healthy treats or snacks, such hummus or dried apricots.

Do you need to choose organic foods?

Organic produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are linked to many health problems. While US scientists debate whether foods grown with organic fertilizers (such as animal waste) are safer for your health, other countries, including European Union nations, have banned or phased out synthetic pesticides still used in the United States.

That doesn’t mean that everything you buy must be organic. But try to stay away from conventionally grown produce with thin skins, such as strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, and grapes. They tend to absorb more chemicals compared to produce with thick skins, such as avocados or pineapples.

The Environmental Working Group creates an annual list to help shoppers avoid high-pesticide produce, and another one that highlights the least contaminated produce.

Buying cost-conscious fresh food and staples

Healthy food, especially organic produce, has a reputation for being expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. Just do a little comparison shopping, and follow Oliveira’s tips to save money on a grocery run:

  • Shop in a smaller store with fewer choices.
  • Never enter a store hungry, since you might buy more than you normally would.
  • Carry a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Go directly to the aisles you need. Avoid browsing elsewhere, which may lead to extra purchases.
  • Be flexible, have several options within your food categories, and go with sale items.
  • Always check the day-old produce cart that offers perfectly edible fresh produce at 50% to 75% off regular prices.
  • Buy unseasoned canned or frozen whole foods such as vegetables, chicken, or fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), which are often cheaper than fresh versions.
  • Wait for sales of healthy nonperishable staples like quinoa, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and high-fiber cereals.
  • Use coupons and coupon apps.

Easy healthy snacks to reach for

Move on from easy grab-n-go snacks, which are typically processed foods. They often contain unhealthy ingredients and promote overeating. Instead, Oliveira suggests keeping healthy snacks on hand, such as:

  • unsalted mixed nuts
  • string cheese
  • grapes and berries (rinse before eating)
  • clementines, bananas, or other fruits that don’t need washing
  • a rice cake with nut butter or hummus
  • fat-free Greek yogurt
  • a peeled hard-boiled egg.

“To save money, buy certain foods in larger amounts when possible, such as an 8-ounce bar of cheese that you slice into small cubes and store in a sealed container in the fridge,” Oliveira says.

Crowdsource shopping tips and savings

Don’t be shy about asking for shopping tips from friends and family members who’ve already developed shortcuts, and grocery store staffers who can offer insider advice.

You can also turn to apps for help. Oliveira recommends two faves:

  • Mealime is a meal-planning app with simple, healthy plant-based recipes that automatically create grocery lists for the ingredients.
  • List Ease creates lists for grocery runs. You can search for items to add or scan barcodes to add to lists.

“And if you prefer not to use apps, just jot down notes after a quick pantry or fridge inventory, or text yourself every time you remember something you need,” Oliveira advises. “With a little practice, you’ll quickly work out the best system for you.”

About the Author

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Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Heidi Godman is the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter. Before coming to the Health Letter, she was an award-winning television news anchor and medical reporter for 25 years. Heidi was named a journalism fellow … See Full Bio View all posts by Heidi Godman

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD