In Vitro Fertilization and Cancer: Is There A Connection?

Earlier this year, American television personality Giuliana Rancic, 36, discovered she had breast cancer during a routine mammogram. The test was conducted around the same time she was undergoing a second round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in an effort to get pregnant.

Speculation about the E! News host’s diagnosis circulated online, and before long people began drawing a link between breast cancer and IVF. The fact is, Rancic’s cancer could have been triggered by any number of potential biological markers. To suggest that the tumours were a direct consequence of Rancic’s IVF treatments would be misleading.

The research on the link between ovulation induction and cancer remains inconsistent. In 2009, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a report based on the Jerusalem Perinatal Study that examined data from more than 15,000 women who gave birth between 1974 and 1976. The report showed a 36% increased risk of cancer at any site among women who received IVF treatment. Other studies have found no link between cancer and IVF. Rancic’s fertility story and the stories of other high-profile women such as Liz Tilberis (the late editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar), Gilda Radner (Saturday Night Live comedienne),  and author and activist Elizabeth Edwards ­– all of whom died of either ovarian or breast cancer after multiple cycles of ovulation and induction – demonstrate the need for a more meaningful public debate about the nature and root causes of infertility.

Anyone who has worked in the field of reproductive health would agree that a road paved with hormone stimulants ought to bear a brightly flashing sign: “Proceed with Extreme Caution!” Though some of the routinely prescribed drugs now display this sort of warning, I know as a fertility educator that these advisories are often disregarded.

If your car begins to break down, chances are you will take it in for repair, rather than force it into higher performance.  Doesn’t the body deserve similar attention? Wouldn’t it make more sense to first address the underlying medical problems that might have triggered a woman’s inability to conceive, rather than force the body into doing what it may not be ready for?

When we use technology to silence the pleading voices within us, and assault  our bodies with increasingly more potent protocols, an instrument of healing becomes a dangerous, self-punishing weapon.

Sadly, as shown by a recent study published in the European journal Human Reproduction in October, the side effects of infertility treatments may not manifest for years. The study at the Netherlands Cancer Institute tracked 19,000 infertile women who had IVF and 6,000 women who did not. The researchers found that those who had undergone IVF were over four times more likely to develop borderline ovarian tumours.

Another significant finding was that the differences between the two groups became more evident the longer the two groups were tracked. Among women who were tracked for 15 years or more after their first cycle of IVF, rates of invasive ovarian cancer were over three times higher than invasive ovarian cancer rates in the group that did not have IVF.

Giuliana Rancic says her unborn child saved her life. The subtitle of my second book, The Fertile Female, which documents case histories of women I’ve worked with over the last 15 years, is: “How the power of longing for a child can save your life and change the world.” There are many ways our unborn children could be saving our lives. Mostly they’re asking us to stop, take a breath and make sure the next step we take isn’t guided by desperation or a need to silence the body’s call for help.

Editor’s note: To learn about natural methods of fertility enhancement, read the companion article “The Journey to Fertility” at http://www.vitalitymagazine.com/article/the-journey-to-fertility1/

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