was 24 years old the first time I did in vitro fertilization—only then it wasn't for me. I was an
egg donor, and I went through the full process of injecting myself with
hormones and undergoing minor surgery for the extraction of my eggs. Twice. My
second donation took place six months after my first.
the time, I was identified as an "ideal" donor. I was told my ovaries were
perfect, and that I would have no problem having babies when my time came.
year after my second donation, I was being told a different story. Now, I had
Stage IV endometriosis and was told my fertility had become a now or never
proposition; that a hysterectomy was in my very near future.
was 27 years old the first time I did IVF for myself. By then, my odds weren't
looking good; the quality of my eggs had diminished from "excellent" to "fair"
in just three years.
IVF cycle failed. So did the next, just a few months later.
28, I had injected myself full of hormones in the pursuit of a baby (first for
someone else, then for myself) a total of four times.
my egg donations were considered a contributing factor to the severity of my
condition by every single doctor who ever saw my before-and-after records, I
often wondered just what those hormones might have done to my body. I became
active in an online support group for donors, and came across an astonishing
number of stories similar to my own (other donors who developed severe
complications with endometriosis after donating), as well as stories that
involved complications I hadn't personally dealt with. One woman developed
ovarian cancer shortly after donating, while in her mid-20s. She had no
family history and was far younger than the typical ovarian cancer diagnosis.
And all of us wondered … could her donations have done this to her?
There is no one willing to dedicate the time and money to long-term studies that might bring into question the safety of these treatments that produce so much profit.
course, we had no way of knowing for sure. Even with the number of us who had
developed endometriosis (an estrogen dependent condition) after donating, we
could only speculate. With very little research into the safety of the drugs we
had been given, and no research at all dedicated to the long-term health
effects to donors (who are a different population entirely from the average
recipient), there was nothing definitive to point to and say, "There it is. The
undeniable proof that our gut instincts about these hormones have been right
then, a preliminary study came out from the UK last month that
purported women who had undergone IVF were one-third more likely to develop
ovarian cancer than those who had never injected themselves with the same
After reading it, I was sad, angry and irritated with an American medical system that has
not contributed to this research in any way. Because in America, the
infertility industry is for-profit, which means there is no one willing to
dedicate the time and money to long-term studies that might bring into question the
safety of these treatments that produce so much profit.
the record, an increased risk of one third actually isn't drastic when you
consider the average woman has a only 1.5 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer.
So IVF might increase that risk to 2 percent. The research did find that the younger a woman pursues IVF, the greater her
risk will be (which … great). But it also found that repeat usage of IVF does
not further increase the risk, and that the women who were pursuing IVF as a
result of male-factor infertility did not have any increased risk. Which does
beg the question of whether IVF is contributing to the increased risk, or if
women pursuing IVF might already just have some increased risk factors against them.
it's important to note that with ovarian cancer (really, with most cancers)
there doesn't necessarily have to be one definitive "cause." A while back, I
interviewed a genetic
counselor about breast cancer, and she explained the
theory of bricks and pebbles adding up to the development of cancer. A brick
might be a strong family history, while a pebble might be a smaller
basically, it would make sense if what we are seeing with IVF is that it is
acting as a pebble, not a full-on brick. For women who already have a backlog
of pebbles (things like their period starting young, never having children or
heavy drinking, and some infertility-related conditions) it could be the final
factor pushing those risks over the edge.
it could be just a coincidence, related only because women pursuing IVF are
women who already have a buildup of pebbles that contribute to cancer risk.
more thing to keep in mind with this most recent study is that the timeline
within which the research has been conducted is still fairly limited. They only
followed women for 8.8 years after IVF. Most of those women wouldn't yet be at
the "average" age for ovarian cancer diagnosis (63). Most cancer is sporadic,
the product of many pebble-like risk factors adding up over decades, and
sporadic cancer takes longer to develop. So if what we are seeing now is an
increased risk for younger women, most of whom are still a decade or two away
from the average age of diagnosis, it's possible that we'll see that risk go up
even more as these women get closer to their 60s. Which would add to the
now, it's all still pretty much speculation. Even with this, one of the largest
studies to date on the issue of cancer and IVF, there are more questions than
answers. This hopefully at least highlights the need for more research, not just about cancer, but also about some of the many other potential concerns and conditions that
have been raised regarding what these hormones may be doing to our bodies.
For women, and their families, who have been diagnosed with one of those conditions shortly after IVF, it's also hard to ignore the "coincidence" of it all.
just don't know enough. And we're relying on other countries, where IVF is a
part of the government health system, to do that research for us. Because here?
Those who might otherwise be integral to completing that research don't want to
be involved in anything that could cut into their bottom line.
that's the real problem. Not that IVF
could potentially contribute to a one-third increase in the risk of ovarian
cancer development, but that the research we have into the long-term safety of
these drugs is sorely lacking. And while a lot of women pursuing IVF would
probably continue down that path, regardless of what the risks might be, they
still deserve to have some definitive answers.
there you have it. IVF may, or may not, increase your risk of cancer
development, and of other conditions that have yet to be studied. It's the same
crapshoot it's always been.
for women, and their families, who have been diagnosed with one of those
conditions shortly after IVF, it's also hard to ignore the "coincidence" of it
all. Especially when their stories aren't totally isolated.
research matters. And there are questions that need to be answered.
just unfortunate that the US fertility industry doesn't seem interested in
pursuing those answers here at home.