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Do Fertility Treatments Cause Cancer?

Photograph by Twenty20

One of the reasons I was reluctant to start fertility treatment—aside from the astronomical costs—was I was afraid what it would mean to start putting all those chemicals in my body: the hormones to increase my egg production, to make me ovulate, to regulate my cycle. It seemed like a bit much. Especially since fertility is such a burgeoning field in early stages and no one quite knows what the effects will be.

That's why I put off starting treatment. (That and the fact that I'd gotten pregnant naturally before.) I started with some IUI's (they never work, do they?), then moved to minimal stimulation IVF, which used a much lower dose of drugs and produced fewer eggs (which were ostensibly the best quality ones.) Only after it all didn't work did I move onto full-stimulation treatment. But I worried about the effects of such a treatment on myself and my future baby.

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One day people say one thing about IVF babies—they're not as smart, are developmentally delayed, have increased incidence of autism, yada yada yada—and the next day someone else is disproving it.

It was the same with effects of IVF drugs on mothers.

A recent study on every IVF procedure at the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) implied that women who had undergone fertility treatments were 37% more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Of course, buried in the stories was the less sexy information: most analysis suggested the increased risk of ovarian cancer were linked to the type of women that needed fertility treatments in the first place, not the actual IVF treatment itself.

In other words, correlation does not mean causality.

That's why I was glad to read about this newer study, "Cancer in Women After Assisted Reproductive Technology," in November's issue of Fertility and Sterility. They monitored 53,859 women from New York, Texas and Illinois without prior treatment, who had IVF between 2004 and 2009.

These women had a "statistically significantly lower risk" for all cancers, breast cancer, and all female genital cancers; a "non-statistically-significant lower risk" for endocrine and uterine cancer; and a "non-statistically-significant higher risk" for melanoma and ovarian cancer.

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According to the conclusion, "Women initiating ART treatment have no greater risk for developing cancer after nearly 5 years of follow-up compared with the general population and with other women treated with ART."

Now that's a headline I'd like to see.

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