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IVF and Ovarian Cancer: A new study causes unnecessary alarm

The recent Dutch study revealing a possible link between IVF and borderline ovarian tumors has caused some panic amongst our patients.  I’d like to set everyone’s mind at ease.

This was a large and long term study comparing ovarian cancer rates in nearly 20,000 women who received IVF with about 6,000 infertile women who had not.  Sixty-one women in the IVF group had ovarian tumors. 31 of these were considered “borderline ovarian cancer” and 30 were invasive cancer.  Those who had IVF had about double the likelihood of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer compared to those who did not over the course of the 15-year study, which was published in the Journal of Human Reproduction.

To the casual reader this all sounds very scary but let me break down the facts for you.

  • Firstly, borderline ovarian tumors are NOT cancer and the study of 26,000 women found no increase risk of ovarian cancer in women who undergo IVF.  Borderline ovarian tumors are not fatal and may never become malignant, but they usually require surgery.
  • Secondly, less than one woman in 100 (0.45 percent of women) will get ovarian cancer by the time they reach the age of 55.  If the results of this study are true, this risk increases to 0.71 percent for women who have IVF treatment.  This is a very small risk increase.  To help put this into perspective, the risk of heart disease is 1 in 5, the risk of being injured in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 100, and the risk of breast cancer is 1 in 9.  The increased risk of a borderline ovarian tumor is 7 in 1,000.
  • There was no additional risk of ovarian cancer for women who had repeated courses of IVF treatment compared with women who had just one treatment.  This might indicate that the hormonal stimulation drugs are not what are causing the increase in borderline tumors.  Some other factor could have accounted for the difference — especially since the risk didn’t continue to rise in those who had higher hormone doses.  Also, women who had been treated with fertility drugs before going on to have IVF treatment did not have a higher risk of a tumor than those who had not.

This study creates a lot of questions that need to be further investigated.  As Jill and Dr. David pointed out, in Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility, all medicine is about weighing up risks and benefits and no one should be taking fertility drugs unless it’s absolutely necessary. However, this study reveals that the increased risk of  ovarian cancer associated with IVF is small and, in my opinion, this should not stop someone from using IVF as an option for having a baby.

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