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Menstrual Periods: Clues to Ovarian Cancer

Study Shows Risk of Death From Ovarian Cancer Linked to Overall Number of Ovulatory Cycles

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The new study ''does suggest that some kind of hormonal factors that are tied into lifetime ovulatory cycles and age at menarche may play into a more aggressive ovarian cancer," says Andrew Li, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

However, the study has several limitations, he tells WebMD. The women in the study may not be representative of a typical ovarian cancer patient, who is often diagnosed in her late 50s or 60s.

In the Robbins study, more than 74% of the women were 50 or younger.

The women in the study had been diagnosed from 1980 to 1982, Li notes, and today's treatments for ovarian cancer are different and improved.

While the study findings primarily point to a need for more research, ''this study would suggest taking oral contraceptive pills [earlier in life] would also improve [women's] survival should they be unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer," Li says.

Both risk factors found to be associated with the higher risk of death from ovarian cancer in the study add up to more lifetime exposure to ovarian hormones, says Mary B. Daly, MD, PhD, director of the Personalized Cancer Risk Assessment Program at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, who also reviewed the study for WebMD.

"This is the first time I've seen a study to relate those two factors to survival from ovarian cancer," Daly says.

Other research has found a consistent link between fewer ovulatory cycles and a lower risk of ovarian cancer, the researchers note, while research on the age at first period and ovarian cancer risk is inconsistent.

Daly, too, cites limitations in the study, also pointing out that the average age of the patients in the study is much younger than the typical average age of an ovarian cancer patient. "It is not exactly a representative population," she says.

There's no immediate take-home message for women, she says, but the study does pose an important question for researchers to answer next.  And that is: "What is it about hormone exposure that can change the biology of ovarian cancer and make it more aggressive?"

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