Certain Careers May Raise Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer

A new statistical analysis found that women who work as hairdressers, accountants, or in the construction or clothing industry may have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

According to statistics, nearly 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2023. However, the rate of this type of cancer has been slowly declining over the past two decades. In addition, the ovarian cancer mortality rate has fallen as well, likely due to lower incidence and better treatment options.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include advanced age, having a family history of ovarian cancer, not having children or breastfeeding, and only using oral contraceptives for a short time. However, other factors that raise the risk of this type of cancer might include environmental exposures, including exposure to specific chemicals and compounds in the workplace.

Yet, few studies have examined exposure to possible carcinogens by females in the workforce or if any specific career might make a woman more vulnerable to compounds that could cause ovarian cancer.

In a population-based study published on July 10 in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers analyzed the lifetime occupational histories of 491 women with ovarian cancer and 897 without the condition to determine if certain occupations raise the risk of this type of cancer.

The investigators also examined the relationship between 29 of the most common agents found in the workplace and cancer risks.

After analyzing the data, the research team found that overall, women with ovarian cancer tended to have less education, have fewer or no children, and used oral contraceptives for a shorter period than women without the condition.

However, when the scientists looked at employment history, they found that working for ten years or more as a hairdresser, barber, beautician, or related job was associated with a three times greater risk of ovarian cancer. Moreover, working ten or more years as an accountant doubled the ovarian cancer risk, and occupations in construction tripled the risk.

What's more, long-term employment in the clothing sector, including embroidery, was associated with an 85% higher risk of ovarian cancer.

The team also found that higher cancer risks were related to more cumulative exposure to these specific agents:

  • Cosmetic talc
  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Hair dust
  • Synthetic fibers
  • Polyester fibers
  • Organic dyes and pigments
  • Cellulose
  • Formaldehyde
  • Propellant gases
  • Aliphatic alcohols
  • Ethanol
  • Isopropanol
  • Fluorocarbons
  • Alkanes (C5–C17)
  • Mononuclear aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum and bleaches

However, because hairdressing occupations are associated with the use of many agents, the researchers couldn't determine if exposure to one or a combination of agents drove the increased cancer risk found in the analysis. They also couldn't determine whether other workplace factors were involved.

But they did identify 12 agents commonly present in these occupations that were suggestively associated with ovarian cancer risks. Out of the 12 agents, one agent — formaldehyde — is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. Moreover, three agents — hydrogen peroxide, cosmetic talc, and isopropanol — are categorized as 'not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans'.

In contrast, the analysis suggests that professional nurses may have a lower risk of ovarian cancer. Additionally, the team found no observable increase or decrease in ovarian cancer among females with educational or healthcare occupations.

Though the findings suggest that specific occupations and workplace exposures may raise the risk of ovarian cancer, the study authors stress that the implications of these results are limited. They say future studies using advanced statistical methods that account for co-exposures are needed to evaluate the possible hazards female workers may face in occupations commonly held by women.

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