IVF can be horrible. Adding a cancer scare to the ordeal is just nasty

Cancer, News & Analysis

22nd October 2015

Most of us, if we’re in our 30s or later, know someone who’s had to go through IVF. The fertility treatment is little short of a miracle — tens of thousands of people every year who once would have been unable to have children now do so. It is surely one of recent medical science’s greatest contributions to human happiness.

It is, however, not a very enjoyable process. Speaking to women I know who’ve gone through it, the drugs and somewhat invasive procedures make the whole experience deeply unpleasant: bloating, nausea, feeling ‘scraped out’. And, of course, if you’ve been trying for a baby without success — perhaps having had a miscarriage in the past — then it’s a pretty terrifying experience as well, waiting for each scan, hoping the news is good.

All of which means that the last thing a woman needs is anything else to worry about. Which is why the Daily Mail‘s recent story about an link between IVF and ovarian cancer was just nasty.

Not, I hasten to add, that the study — which hasn’t yet been published, although its results are soon to be announced at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference — isn’t worth reporting on. It is. Scientists at University College London looked at the medical records of 250,000 women, and found that those who’d had IVF treatment were about 37 per cent more likely to develop ovarian cancer. That’s interesting, and worth noting.

The Mail, though, puts, in a bullet point in the standfirst of the online version of its piece, right below the headline, that scientists ‘admit there’s a small possibility that treatment itself is to blame’. Reading the piece, the scientists are very circumspect about that — they say, in short, that it’s impossible to rule it out, which of course is true. But they all agree that the most likely cause is that women who suffer from the sort of problems that cause infertility are at greater risk of cervical cancer, and that any increased risk from the IVF procedure, if it exists at all, is very slight.

This might sound pernickety, and maybe it is. The Mail says there’s only a small chance that IVF causes cancer; they have, in the piece, given the more likely explanation that it’s a correlation, rather than a cause. They haven’t even buried that fact down in paragraph 19. Under other circumstances, on a different story, I’d almost want to say they’ve done quite a good job. But I just imagine women who are already having a horrible time, struggling with the physical and psychological hardships that IVF puts them through, focusing on that needless, cruel little bullet point telling them that they need to worry about giving themselves cancer, too.

  • Dougie

    Come on, Tom, no-one has to go through IVF, it’s a choice. Infertility, in many cases, is not the result of a disease. It’s just part of the normal variability of individuals within a population. That’s not to say I’m unsympathetic towards those who cannot have children the conventional way but having children is not a human right.