IVF and ovarian cancer – what you need to know

We investigate the real facts behind the shouty headlines warning of a link between IVF and ovarian cancer

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What’s the story?

A new report out today has revealed that women who have IVF treatment are 37% more likely than those who don’t to develop ovarian cancer. The research has been carried out using records from 255,000 Britons over the past 20 years.

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Scientists say the most probable explanation is that the factors which cause infertility are also a leading factor in causing the cancer, however, there is a small possibility that the IVF treatment itself could be to blame.

It’s been suggested that stimulating the ovaries to produce multiple eggs instead of just one – which is what happens in IVF treatment – could be the reason behind the increased risk.

Should I be worried?

No. The study, carried out by UCL (University College London), looked at the statistical likelihood of women who had received IVF getting ovarian cancer and found that 15 in 10,000 women developed the disease. In comparison, 11 out of 10,000 women who hadn’t had IVF developed the disease.

And there is no increased risk with womb or breast cancer. So while a 37% increased risk sounds like a significantly higher risk, it’s based on very small initial numbers.

What do the experts say?

The researcher who led the study, Professor Alastair Sutcliffe, is confident that IVF is not something women should worry about unduly with regards to ovarian cancer:

“This internationally-unique study suggests little for women to worry about regarding the risk of cancers and the drug treatments they undergo to have a baby with IVF,” he said.

And Dr Julie Cooper from Cancer Research, adds:

“The causes of ovarian cancer are complex and we’re funding this type of research to give us a better understanding of the most important risk factors, so that we can better advise women thinking about fertility treatment.”

Ovarian cancer – the basics

While, as we’ve mentioned, this report isn’t something women who have had, or are having, IVF treatment should start worrying about, it’s still worth all women knowing the signs of ovarian cancer as early diagnosis can lead to more effective treatment.

Some of the symptoms, especially in the early stages, are very similar to those of less serious conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). They include:

  • constant bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)
  • difficulty eating – feeling nauseous/ feeling full fast
  • abdominal and pelvic pain

If you’re at all worried, do see a doctor.

The good news

The good news about this study is that is has caused a number of experts to come out and say that there needs to be more monitoring around IVF on the NHS – which must surely be a positive thing.

For example, Professor Geeta Nargund of Create Fertility that runs five UK-based clinics, says:

“This is a very important study. Not enough has been done to safeguard the health and safety of women undergoing IVF in the UK. The causative factors at the moment are not clear – but until they are we should support cancer screening on the NHS. And we have an obligation to give women robust information that allows them to make informed decisions.”

The bottom line

Look past the scary ‘37% increase’ figure of the headlines. The simple truth is that women who have IVF increase their chance of getting ovarian cancer by 0.04% – from 0.11 to 0.15%. This is a small increase of a small risk. Just make sure you reduce your risk by being aware of possible symptoms and talking to your GP if you’re worried.

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