Black Women and Ovarian Cancer

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FACT: Early detection of ovarian cancer is critical. However, the symptoms can be very vague, making them difficult to identify in order to receive the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

The Basics: What are ovaries?

You have two ovaries that are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries make female sex hormones, including estrogen and progesterone, and produce eggs. Estrogen and progesterone are responsible for regulating the menstrual cycle and for the development of secondary sex characteristics, such as breast development.

Ovarian cancer develops from cells found in the ovaries that become malignant and grow out of control.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer:

The symptoms of Ovarian Cancer can be very vague. It is important to pay close attention to changes in your body that have to do with the following symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic Pain
  • Urgent Need to Urinate
  • Fatigue
  • Upset Stomach

It is important to note that these symptoms can easily be mistaken for other conditions.

How do you know if you are at risk for ovarian cancer?

According to the CDC, all females are at risk for ovarian cancer, but older women are more likely to be affected by this disease than younger women. About 90% of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40 years of age, with the greatest number of cases occurring in women aged 60 years or older.

Most risk factors for ovarian cancer are still unknown. Doctors/researchers believe that endometriosis, a family history of ovarian cancer, and increased age, are factors that may contribute to ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society states that obesity and poor diet can increase the risk as well

When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment is most effective!

Ovarian Cancer FAQ

What are the symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer may cause one or more of these signs and symptoms:

-Vaginal bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal
-Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area (the area below the stomach and between the hip bones)
-Back pain
-Bloating in the area below your stomach, which swells or feels full
-Feeling full quickly while eating
-A change in one’s bathroom habits, such as having to pass urine very frequently, constipation, or diarrhea

What are the risk factors for Ovarian Cancer?

Some factors that may increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer:

-You have close family members who have had ovarian cancer
-You have BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations
-You have a personal history of breast, uterine or colon cancer
-You have endometriosis
-You have never given birth or giving birth for the first time after age 35
-Your age: Half of all ovarian cancer cases occur in women older than 63
-You are obese
-You have regularly used talcum powder or baby powder that contains talc in your pelvic region

Why is early detection important with Ovarian Cancer?

The reason that ovarian cancer is so deadly is because it is often diagnosed too late when treatments may not be as successful. Unlike cervical cancer, there are no early screening tests for ovarian cancer. In 2011, The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition reported that doctors initially misdiagnosed two-thirds of the women surveyed.

This makes it important to pay attention to changes in your body which could be signs of ovarian cancer. This especially includes bloating, pelvic/abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly and frequently having the urgent need to urinate.

How does baby powder tie into reproductive injustice?

An investigation by Reuters revealed that Johnson and Johnson knew since the 1970’s that their baby powder contained traces of asbestos and withheld this information from both their consumers and regulators.

In 2006, the World Health Organization declared products that contained talcum powder as “possibly carcinogenic”. A special report done by Reuters revealed that after this declaration, Johnson and Johnson feared their sales would go down and specifically targeted Black women and Hispanic women in their advertisements of baby powder even though they knew their products were linked to cancer.

They distributed samples of baby powder in churches and salons located in Black and Hispanic communities. They ran a $300,000 radio advertisement campaign, which they stated in a 2006 internal marketing meeting was targeted at “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American”. Studies have shown that Black women have used baby powder at higher rates than women of any other ethnic group. A study from 2016 showed that Black women who use talc-based baby powders have a 40% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

More information on Johnson and Johnson Baby Powder:

-Profiting From the Myths About Black Women’s Bodies a Time Magazine article by Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley

-Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder a Reuters Investigation by Lisa Girion

-Johnson & Johnson Sued Over Baby Powder by New Mexico a New York Times article by Tiffany Hsu

-Special Report: As Baby Powder concerns mounted, J&J focused on minority, overweight women a Reuters article by By Chris Kirkham, Lisa Girion

What about talcum powder?

You may have seen headlines discussing the link between baby powder and ovarian cancer. This is because baby powder has historically been composed of a compound called talc. Talc is geographically found near and is chemically similar to asbestos. Traces of asbestos have been found in Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder. Some researchers believe that talc itself may be the cause of ovarian cancer, and other researchers believe that asbestos which can be found in baby powder could also be a contributing factor.

What about BRCA Genes and Ovarian Cancer?

While sometimes ovarian cancer occurs by chance, sometimes ovarian cancer is hereditary. This means that it can be passed on through families by mutations, or genetic changes, in genes involved in preventing cancer. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are involved in both ovarian and breast cancer. Under normal conditions, these two genes work to protect you from breast and ovarian cancer. However some mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes prevent them from working properly. This puts a woman at risk for certain types of breast and ovarian cancer, according to the CDC.

These genes are passed on from both your mother and father, so you will have two copies of each gene. You are more likely to have mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 if you have a strong history of breast or ovarian cancer in your family on either your mother or father’s side. Mutations in these genes can be detected through genetic testing.

According to the CDC, about 10% of ovarian cancer cases in the United States occur because of a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. In general, about 1% of women in the United States will develop ovarian cancer by age 70. If a woman has a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, then her chances of having ovarian cancer by age 70 increases to 30%. Ovarian cancer can also be caused by mutations in genes other than BRCA1 and BRCA2. If you are concerned that you may have one of these mutations, you should speak to your healthcare provider about genetic testing.


  • The Grio
  • SHARE: This is a New York City-based organization focused on connecting women with ovarian, uterine, and breast cancer with survivors of these cancers for support. They currently have special dial-in and video conferencing support groups for women of African descent with breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Ovarian Cancer
  • The CDC has created a campaign called “Inside Knowledge” to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of gynecological cancers. This page provides a checklist for symptoms that may be associated with gynecological cancers, which is a great tool to have and bring to your annual pelvic exam.
  • Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder
  • Article: Women Everywhere Don't Know Enough about Ovarian Cancer
  • CDC Information on BRCA Genes
  • PODCAST: “The Cost of Silky Soft” is an eye-opening podcast and part of KCRW's Bodies series. It tells the story of Krystal, a Black woman in her 40s diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After her diagnosis, Krystal discovered that studies had linked ovarian cancer to baby powder, a product that Krystal had been using in her underwear and on her underarms every day since she was a preteen. Talc was found in the ovarian tissue removed from Krystal’s body and asbestos was found in her lymph nodes.