A new study has found that drinking alcohol doesn’t seem to boost a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer, while caffeine may help protect against the disease.
In the same study, smoking cigarettes wasn’t linked with an increase in the most common types of ovarian cancer but was associated with an increase in a rare subtype of the disease.
It’s too soon to recommend drinking caffeine to lower ovarian cancer risk, said study senior author Shelley S. Tworoger, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.
“The results do need to be confirmed in other studies,” Tworoger said. The lack of risk for alcohol and smoking has been found in other research, she added.
For the study, Tworoger and her colleagues looked at data from questionnaires in the Nurses’ Health Study, which includes 121,701 U.S. female registered nurses. The study began in 1976, with women then aged 30 to 35 completing questionnaires, then replying every two years to update the data.
Tworoger’s team looked at the association between smoking and ovarian cancer risk among 110,454 of the women, and the association between alcohol and caffeine and ovarian cancer risk among 80,253 women, all followed from 1976 to 2004. For the smoking analysis, the researchers found 737 confirmed cases of epithelial ovarian cancer, the most common type of ovarian cancer. For the diet analysis, they found 507 women with epithelial ovarian cancer.
No association was apparent for drinking alcohol and ovarian cancer, or for smoking, with one exception. “It [smoking] does appear to increase the incidence of a rare type, mucinous ovarian tumors,” she said, a subtype of epithelial ovarian cancer.
However, the researchers found an “inverse trend” for total caffeine intake and caffeinated coffee consumption and ovarian cancer, but the individual risk reductions didn’t reach statistical significance.
The association for caffeine was strongest if the women had never used either birth control pills or hormones after menopause, Tworoger said. Why caffeine may be protective isn’t certain, she said, but its consumption may lower estrogen levels, at least in postmenopausal women.
Sherry Salway Black, executive director of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and an ovarian cancer survivor, agreed it’s too early to recommend caffeine as a risk-lowering strategy.
Tworoger said her team plans to further study the caffeine-ovarian cancer link.
For now, she advised: “Always talk to your doctor before you make any huge lifestyle changes.” And keep the risks in perspective, she added. “Because ovarian cancer is relatively rare, women should talk to their doctor first about the risk of getting ovarian cancer.”
Black agreed, adding: “Know the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Know your family history and your risk and talk with your health-care provider.” Get advice about what to do, she said, especially if you have a higher-than-average risk.
Symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, urinary frequency and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.