WOMEN desperate for a baby may be putting themselves at risk of death after research found that fertility treatment can double the chance of ovarian cancer.
Scientists have found that fertility treatment makes women twice as likely to develop the disease later in life, especially low-grade tumours.
Stimulating the ovaries of women undergoing in-vitro fertilisation increased the chances of patients being diagnosed with invasive or low-grade cancers 15 years later.
Overall, ovarian cancer rates were twice as high among women who had the treatment which forces the ovaries to produce extra eggs.
The main impact was on non-fatal, slow-growing “borderline ovarian tumours”. Ovary stimulation led to the risk of this type of low-grade cancer being raised four-fold.
Although not considered dangerous, borderline ovarian tumours still require extensive surgery.
The incidence of invasive tumours was higher than expected after 15 years among women who had undergone IVF.
However, despite this result being “concerning” to scientists, it was not considered statistically significant. Researchers analysed data on more than 19,146 women who had received at least one ovarian stimulation treatment, and 6,006 women who did not undergo IVF.
Of 61 women who had ovarian malignancies in the IVF treatment group, 31 had borderline ovarian cancer and 30 had invasive ovarian cancer.
Study leader Professor Flora van Leeuwen, from the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, said: “Our data clearly show that ovarian stimulation for IVF is associated with an increased risk of borderline ovarian tumours and this risk remains elevated up to more than 15 years after the first cycle of treatment.”
The long-term risk of potentially deadly invasive ovarian cancer was also raised.
After 15 years the observed number of cases was 3.54 times greater than expected among women who had undergone IVF.
In their paper, published online in the journal Human Reproduction, the scientists said this was “a concerning finding”, although the numbers involved were very small.
After 15 or more years, nine cases of invasive cancer were detected in the IVF group compared with a statistical prediction of 2.54.
Professor van Leeuwen said the result may have been influenced by how many children, if any, a woman receiving IVF treatment had already given birth to.
She stressed that the individual risk of developing either ovarian cancer was “very low”. Despite this, it is the fifth most common cancer among British women, with more than 6,500 cases diagnosed each year.
There are around 4,400 deaths a year from it.
Ovarian cancer has been called the “silent killer” because it is often not detected until it is lethal.
Professor Peter Braude, from King’s College London, said: “This is an important and worthwhile long-term study which goes some way to answering the questions that so many IVF patients ask.
“However, the results should be kept in proportion as the increase shown was from around five in 1,000 to seven per 1,000 women.
“This needs to be balanced against the intention of the treatment for those infertile to conceive a child.”