Irregular periods could mean increased risk of ovarian cancer

May 18, 2014—The early stages of ovarian cancer are difficult to spot. That’s why a recent study presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research is so important. Here, researchers suggest that something as simple as a history of irregular menstrual periods could boost the risk of ovarian cancer.

In this study, researchers found that women who had irregular periods in their 20s had more than two times the risk of ovarian cancer death while in their 60s. That means their risk of ovarian cancer was similar to the risk seen in women who had a mother, sister or daughter with ovarian cancer, said study author Barbara A. Cohn, PhD, MPH.

A difficult disease to spot and treat

Ovarian tumors are difficult to find during a routine pelvic exam, according to the American Cancer Society, and screening hasn’t been shown to save lives in women at average risk.

“Unfortunately, there is no reliable method for early diagnosis or screening,” Dr. Cohn said. “And symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating often do not come to a woman’s attention until the cancer has spread.”

That means ovarian cancer is often diagnosed long after the disease has taken hold, and it’s much harder to treat successfully at that point, Dr. Cohn said. This study could be important simply because it provides doctors with a new symptom to look for, and it could help women know just what symptoms to report to their doctors in routine visits.

About the study

The study included information about 14,403 women enrolled between 1959 and 1967 in the Child Health and Development Studies. These women were followed for more than 50 years.

About 13 percent of the women reported menstrual irregularity—cycles longer than 35 days or not having periods—at age 26. Of these, 64 died from ovarian cancer at an average age of 69 years.

Researchers analyzed the data and found that:

  • Women with irregular periods had twice the risk of dying from ovarian cancer.
  • The incidence of being diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer was also twice as high among women with irregular cycles.

Dr. Cohn and colleagues ruled out several ovarian cancer risk factors. These included the use of fertility drugs (which may increase risk) and birth control (which may lower risk) prior to getting pregnant. And since the women all had children (which may lower the risk of ovarian cancer), infertility also was eliminated as a possible explanation.

The take-home message
The study suggests that irregular or missed periods may raise a woman’s lifetime risk of getting ovarian cancer. And since the disease is hard to spot, women might die from ovarian cancer too. But the study doesn’t prove cause and effect or mean that women with unpredictable periods will develop cancer.

“Our study finding could lead to better understanding of the 90 percent of ovarian cancers that occur in women with no family history and with no known high-risk inherited mutations,” Dr. Cohn said. “This information may help earlier diagnosis and perhaps lead to a strategy to prevent ovarian cancer by pointing toward how the cancer develops and spreads.”

While this information might not help women who already have ovarian cancer, it does suggest that vigilance is important for all women. Gynecologic exams can help your doctor spot some types of diseases, and discussing your menstrual history during these exams could help your doctor to monitor your overall health and your ovarian cancer risk. It’s a conversation well worth having.

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