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Kids Born after Infertility at Risk of Cancer?

February 21, 2013

A study presented at the Fertility Society of Australia conference late in 2012 says children born to mothers who struggled with infertility have a 17% increased risk of developing adult or childhood cancer compared to women without fertility problems, but this data isn't suggesting what you might think.

Scientists from the Danish Cancer Society Research Center and Copenhagen University, led by Principal Investigator Dr. Marie Hargreave, found an increased risk for childhood leukemia, skin cancer, urinary tract cancer, and cancer of the endocrine glands. No other cancers were found statistically significant, which means there isn’t a strong enough association between a mother’s infertility and other types of cancer.

Dr. Hargreave especially noted that while studies have attempted to prove correlation between fertility drugs and fertility treatment to various types of cancer, the data was inconsistent and could not demonstrate a definitive risk. "Furthermore, if negative effects of assisted reproductive technology are present, they could be related to the underlying infertility rather than the procedure itself,” Hargreave stated. The conditions that cause infertility in the mother could also be the cause of cancer in her offspring, rather than fertility treatment being the cause of cancer.

One theory says the association between a mother’s infertility and her child’s risk of cancer could be the result of a drug, diethylstilbestrol, that the mother was exposed to in utero. Diethylstilboestrol, or “Des”, was prescribed to prevent miscarriage in the 1950s and 1960s (similar to the use of Dexamethasone "Dex" for miscarriage prevention today), but reports are surfacing in recent news that female offspring conceived in that generation are suffering infertility and cancer as a result.

Reassuringly, scientists note that the data analyzed in this study was from offspring born since 1963--nearly two decades before IVF came to Denmark, meaning much of this data was collected before IVF was even available. Advances in the field of reproductive medicine have resulted in more than five million in vitro fertilization (IVF) births and more recent studies are showing IVF babies are happy in adulthood and enjoy good physical health.

There is a definite need for research on the health outcomes of children born to parents with infertility and of fertility treatment. This does not suggest that fertility treatment will cause cancer, but should raise awareness of the overall risk of cancer as it pertains to the infertility diagnosis itself.


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