Can Infertility Point to Ovarian Cancer Risk?

Image: Embryos are placed onto a CryoLeaf ready for instant freezing using a vitrification process for IVF
IVF. A New study shows women who need fertility treatment may have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.Ben Birchall / Press Association Images

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By Maggie Fox

A woman’s need for fertility treatments may point to a higher risk of ovarian cancer, researchers reported Tuesday.

A large study of women getting fertility help in Britain shows that those women had a 60 percent higher risk of developing the hard-to-treat cancer.

Dr. Alastair Sutcliffe of University College London and colleagues examined the records of all women who had fertility treatments between 1991 and 2010.

“With 8.8 years follow up, 386 ovarian cancers occurred in 255,786 women,” they wrote in a description of their work released at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Baltimore.

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“Compared to the general population, ART patients had a one-and-a-third times greater likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.”

Women with endometriosis –an overgrowth of the uterine lining – had a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Women who never had a child, either before or after treatments, were at the highest risk.

But women whose husbands were the ones with fertility problems were not at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. And more cycles of treatment did not seem to affect a woman’s risk, either.

That suggests that it wasn’t the treatment itself that raises a woman’s risk, said Dr. Owen Davis, president-elect of the ASRM.

“This is reassuring because it suggests that ovarian cancer is not caused by assisted reproductive technology per se, but rather is associated with the underlying infertility diagnoses.”

Now it will be important for scientists to study what infertility factors might be associated with ovarian cancer risk, Davis said.

Other studies have found no link between fertility treatment and ovarian cancer risk. A 2011 study involving 1.4 million Swedish women who had IVF showed they did not have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. That team, writing in the journal Human reproduction, also said that whatever raises the risk for infertility may also raise the risk of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in more than 21,000 American women this year and it will kill more than 14,000. It’s one of the deadliest cancers because it’s almost always diagnosed in late stages, after it has spread.

Knowing common risk factors, such as infertility, might help doctors flag women at higher risk.