I’ve been asked about the tie between fertility drugs and ovarian cancer by numerous friends. These are women who couldn’t get pregnant and had resorted fertility treatments - women who worried if they had made a fatal error. Some had taken the drugs to the suggested limit, but one friend had taken more, her desire to have a child outweighing any fear about her own health.
The debate stems from decade-old studies that suggested a relationship between fertility drugs and ovarian cancer, thus creating tremendous fear in women who simply wanted help in order to have children. Fortunately, new studies now show that the use of fertility drugs does not increase a woman’s risk of getting this deadly disease.
According to the American Cancer Society, some women who were treated for infertility will develop ovarian cancer, but the reason may be the underlying cause of their infertility in the first place, not the actual drugs given to treat it. Statistically, women who have borne a child are at slightly lower risk, and the risks get lower with each pregnancy. So, it stands to reason that a woman seeking fertility treatment would likely be in the “low or no pregnancy” category.
Risk factors for ovarian cancer are not definitive like the direct tie between smoking and lung cancer. They are vague and most are based on linking facts, not science because, aside from hereditary genetic mutations that cause 10% of ovarian cancer cases, the cause of the disease is still a mystery. What is known is that some conditions exist in greater or lower numbers of women with ovarian cancer. For example, most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed after age 50, so an older a woman is statistically at greater risk. On the other hand, women who took birth control pills for at least 10 years had a lower incidence, suggesting a lower risk. Yet, we still don’t understand why.
When a friend recently asked me about her risk after taking fertility drugs, I could read the concern in her eyes. She had just adopted a baby and now feared that her longing for a child might have cost her a future. And who would ultimately pay for her desire to have a baby?