Science

Irregular periods linked to increased ovarian cancer risk

15,000 Californian women were tracked in a 50-year study

By Lizzie Harrett

A study has found that women with irregular menstrual periods may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer in later life. This is the first time that abnormally long cycles or missed periods have been linked to increased risk of ovarian cancer.

This contradicts previous research consensus which states that having fewer ovulatory cycles is a protect factor against ovarian cancer. “This study is certainly curious, because it contradicts what we thought we knew about ovarian cancer and incessant ovulation,” says Mitchell Maiman, a doctor at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.

The study was a 50-year research project that looked at Californian women. They analysed data from over 15,000 individuals who enrolled in a study in 1959 to track disease risk over a lifetime. They defined menstrual irregularities as cycles which lasted longer than 35 days or a long-term history of infrequent or missed periods.

Over the course of 50 years, 116 of the women in the study developed ovarian cancer. The study found that women who had a menstrual irregularity were twice as likely as women with normal periods to develop and die from it by the age of 70.

This research could guide further work about who might benefit from screening or prevention efforts, with Rachel Maiman stating: “If validated this could give us one more risk assessment factor to determine high-risk individuals in which screening is prudent.”

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with 7,300 diagnosed every year, according to Cancer Research UK. Early symptoms include abdominal bloating and discomfort and can often be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. Age is a massive risk factor, with more than 50 per cent of women who are diagnosed being over the age of 63.

However, this research should not strike panic into your heart if your periods don’t run as regularly as clockwork. Cancer science news reporting is legendarily sensationalist. We are constantly bombarded in the news media by what does and doesn’t cause cancer – the Daily Mail is infamous for saying that anything and everything leads to increased risk of cancer. From having a big head when a baby to wearing belts to being left handed, they’ve all been linked up. The news articles often also fail to critique the research carried out; some of these sensationalist articles talk about studies that were carried out on a very small number of people or with a shoddy methodology.

It sounds obvious but unfortunately as humans we are all at risk of developing any disease, including cancer. Risk does not equate to actually contracting a disease, just the chance of this – which is often incredibly low anyway.

While this study does have a strong methodology with a large number of people who they carried out the study on, you don’t need to worry. The authors simply found an increased risk in the chances of getting ovarian cancer if you had irregular periods. If you have any symptoms that you are concerned about then contact your GP and push for tests.

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