Magazine article Science News

Ovarian Cancer: Homing in on the True Risks

Magazine article Science News

Ovarian Cancer: Homing in on the True Risks

Article excerpt

One in 70 U.S. women will develop ovarian cancer, and more than 60 percent of them will die of their malignancy within five years of diagnosis. Clinicians have observed that childbearing and use of oral contraceptives tend to lower a woman's risk of this generally silent killer, while infertility and age have been linked to increased risk.

Now new analyses substantially revise that list of risks and previously tendered explanations of the cancer's likely biological cause.

The new findings could have important public health implications, asserts Carolyn L. Westhoff, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York City

who is familiar with the analyses.

For instance, she points out, 80 percent of American women now take birth-control pills for an average of four years -- usually by age 30. That suggests, Westhoff says, that "we could get rid of half of this disease simply because women take the pill." Moreover, she argues, one newly identified possible risk -- drugs that trigger ovulation -"is a big enough deal to recommend against egg donation by healthy women" to infertile women. Until now, Westhoff notes, many physicians viewed these fertility-enhancing drugs much like vitamins: "They might help; can't hurt."

Alice S. Whittemore, an epidemiologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, headed a team of researchers from 14 medical institutions who reviewed ovarian cancer data from 12 previous studies. Their series of four papers in the just released Nov. 15 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY examines Ovarian cancer risk factors among the studies' 6,500 white subjects - roughly one-third of whom had the cancer. In the Jan. 20 JOURNAL OF THE NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE, a fifth paper by the group focuses on the ovarian cancer risk among a much smaller group of black women who had taken part in seven of the studies.

Overall, Whittemore notes, her groups statistical review using meta-analysis turned up several new findings. …

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