Scare Tactics: IVF and the Cancer Connection

7 years ago
Hand holding a test tube with a toy baby

The first time I wondered if the fertility drugs I took had any chance of causing cancer or other health concerns down the road was when I was reading Peggy Orenstein's book, Waiting for Daisy. I knew that there was a relationship between breast cancer and estrogen, and the high levels of estrogen produced by multiple follicles during hyperstimulation surely put you at risk. Right?

It didn't take long before I started to wonder whether the drugs used during fertility treatments affected the future health of our twins. Around that time, I started noticing an onslaught of articles attaching fertility drugs and procedures to an increased risk of every health condition and disease known to man. Autism, check. Cerebral palsy, check.

And now cancer.

The first articles and posts sounded a little bit like Chicken Little announcing the sky was falling. The Telegraph announced that children conceived via IVF were 42% more likely to develop a childhood cancer. But putting that 42% into less terrifying terms, out of the 26,000 children conceived via IVF included in the study, 53 instead of 38 developed cancer before the age of 19.

In other words, .oo2% instead of .oo14% of the group developed a childhood cancer. But I'm certain that isn't as eye-catching as 42%.

In Time magazine's coverage, the title states that it will explain why IVF is linked to cancer risk, yet the key piece of information one can take away from the hypotheses in the article is that "Why IVF babies may be at greater risk for cancer is not clear."

Babble doesn't even distinguish between the child or mother being diagnosed with cancer within their ominous title -- "IVF Linked to Cancer" -- and makes sure to place one sentence in bold, red lettering: "significantly higher risk of developing cancer as children or young adults."

And US News and World Report does what so many articles do as well -- present the findings as tied to IVF within the lede and then bury the facts of the study deep down the page:

Although it's not clear what's to blame for the increase, the study authors think it's unlikely that IVF is at the root of the increased risk of cancer.

And then, people start doing the math and realize they are working in figures more akin to dust particles than tumbleweeds. And that's when the back pedaling starts, long after the idea is already planted in the minds of not only those utilizing IVF to build their family, but the general public.

TODAYonline admits the cancer is probably tied to something other than IVF within their title ("Test-tube kids and cancer? Not likely, say scientists"). ABC also points out in their title that it's unlikely that IVF is the cause ("Test-Tube Kids and Cancer? Methods Unlikely the Cause"). While CNN starts out by gently pointing out that the risk of childhood cancer is low in both IVF-conceived and non-IVF-conceived children.

This happens from time to time: a slew of articles comes out screeching the findings of a new study as if the results have a huge impact on the overall risk of the procedure. And once people have been fomented into a frenzy of worry about whether or not they should go through with their current cycle, the next wave of articles comes out pointing out the rest of the story: that the risk is still low, that conceiving without IVF does not guarantee your child good health, and there is most likely something other than the procedure itself creating these results.

Is it a desire to sell magazines and newspapers? A quest to get as many page views as possible? A true worry that science is reaching too far? Or simply sloppy reporting that aims to change mood rather than disseminate information?

Regardless, I can't really worry about cancer anymore. The latest studies have us dropping dead.*

* Just to give you perspective, that would be .000425% vs. .000021%.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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