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Fertility Treatment and Ovarian Cancer: Are You at Risk?


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The physical and emotional impact that can accompany difficulty conceiving can be tremendously difficult for women. Some who have repeated failed attempts within a reasonable period of time may choose to seek help from a doctor for an evaluation to begin fertility treatments.

Infertility treatment depends on a woman’s age, length of infertility and personal preferences. Some women may need just one treatment to restore fertility, while others may have to try multiple treatment methods, including medication or surgery.

One treatment method called in vitro fertilization (IVF) is an assisted reproductive technology (ART) where a woman’s egg is fertilized by sperm outside of the body and then placed in the uterus once an embryo, or embryos, form. ART refers to all fertility treatments in which both eggs and embryos are handled outside of the body.

Researchers have been studying ART since the ‘90s to see if receiving treatments had any relation to a woman’s likelihood to develop ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in the U.S. as the cause of cancer deaths among women, and accounts disproportionately for more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Early studies on the subject suggested that there could be a link between ART and the development of a specific type of tumor in the ovaries,” says Gazi Abdulhay. M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Crozer Health.

A new study done in the United Kingdom says ART doesn’t carry an overall increased risk of ovarian cancer. Although women who undergo fertility treatments do face a small increased risk of ovarian tumors, it’s more likely due to other predisposing factors, according to the study.

“The study is positive news for anyone considering fertility treatments to begin a family,” says Abdulhay. “The increased incidence of ovarian tumors may actually be due to the reason behind infertility, not the treatment.”

Studies have found that women who have fewer children or have their first child later in life are more likely to develop a reproductive organ cancer.

“Researchers in the coming years will continue to look at what about infertility makes women more likely to develop ovarian cancer,” says Abdulhay. “But the study should reassure women seeking fertility treatments that they have little or no effect on ovarian cancer risk.”

While ovarian cancer is not a concern of ART, treatment could increase risk for the following conditions:

  • Multiple births
  • Premature delivery and low birth weight
  • Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome
  • Miscarriage
  • Egg-retrieval procedure complications
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Birth defects
  • Stress

Anyone who is taking fertility drugs, or is thinking about starting, should discuss the potential risks with their doctor. Before beginning ART, you will likely need various screenings and an examination of the pelvic organs to determine if it’s the right treatment option for you. 

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