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Putting to Rest Fears that IVF May Be Linked to Cancer

Time,  Dec 8, 2010
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In the wake of Elizabeth Edwards' death, many women are wondering whether the fertility treatments the former Senator's wife underwent to bear children late in life — she leaves behind two young children, ages 10 and 12 — could have contributed to the breast cancer that killed her.

It's a plausible concern, given that fertility treatment exposes women to unnaturally high levels of hormones, including estrogen and progesterone — often repeatedly, and sometimes at an age when those hormones would normally be declining. Previous data have suggested that these fertility drugs may be associated with increased risk for breast, uterine and ovarian cancers.

But a large new study published this month in Human Reproduction suggests that women who undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) — the procedure Edwards used to conceive her youngest children — do not put themselves at a higher-than-usual risk of cancer. The study examined data on all IVF births in Sweden between 1982 and 2006, comparing the rate of cancer in 24,058 women who conceived via IVF with that of nearly 1.4 million Swedish mothers who did not require fertility treatment.

The study found that the risk for any cancer was actually 26% lower in women after they had children through IVF, compared with those who had conceived the old-fashioned way. Breast cancer risk was reduced 24% and cervical cancer risk 39%, over the eight-year follow-up period.

"The ultimate message is that there is no increase in cancer risk associated with IVF," says Dr. Don Dizon, associate professor of obstetrics-gynecology at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, who was not associated with the research.

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