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Back to Cancer

Milk Products and Ovarian Cancer

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, the authority on diet and cancer, the evidence on the relationship between milk products and ovarian cancer is limited and no conclusions can be drawn. 

Highlights

  • The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown;
  • Current evidence does not support any association between milk and milk product consumption and an increased risk of ovarian cancer;
  • Dairy fat has not been shown to be associated with the risk of ovarian cancer.

Basic Facts on Ovarian Cancer

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown; however, it is likely that there are different contributing risk factors:1

  • Age, particularly after 50 years;
  • Personal history of cancer, particularly breast;
  • Family history of ovarian cancer;
  • Never having been pregnant;
  • Adult attained height.

About 1 out of 71 Canadian women is expected to develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime.1

The Evidence

According to the 2014 Continuous Update Project report on ovarian cancer issued by the World Cancer Research Fund International, the evidence on milk and dairy products was judged as “limited - no conclusion.”2

A 2014 meta-analysis of 19 studies evaluated the association between intake of milk, yogurt and lactose and the risk of ovarian cancer. The following findings were reported:3

  • Low-fat/skim milk, yogurt and lactose intakes were not associated with ovarian cancer risk;
  • Whole milk was associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

In the Nurses’ Health Study I (n = 76,243) and II (n = 88,356), it was assessed whether dairy intake was associated with epithelial ovarian cancer risk over 28 years of follow-up.4

  • Consumption of skim milk, whole milk, lactose, dairy calcium or dairy fat during adulthood was not associated with ovarian cancer risk;
  • No association was also observed for intakes during high school, pre-menopause or post-menopause;
  • In analyses by type of ovarian cancer, no association was observed for serous ovarian cancer, but the highest quintile of lactose intake was associated with a 68% risk reduction in endometrioid ovarian cancer.

Using data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study and the Netherlands Cohort Study, Merritt et al. evaluated an extensive list of dietary factors in relation to epithelial ovarian cancer risk.5

  • The consumption of milk, yogurt and cheese was not associated with epithelial ovarian cancer risk.

Potential Mechanisms

Calcium and vitamin D
There are concerns that high intakes of calcium may depress the active form of vitamin D (1,25‑[OH]2 vitamin D) in the blood. The vitamin D receptor is found in human ovarian tumour specimens and cell lines, and active vitamin D inhibits cell proliferation in ovarian cell lines and induces apoptosis.

In contrast, high intakes of calcium may protect against carcinogenesis by down-regulating the production of parathyroid hormone, which may reduce mitosis and increase apoptosis. Calcium in milk also binds carcinogens such as bile salts and fatty acids.1,6

In addition, findings from a meta-analysis suggest that there may in fact be an inverse association between vitamin D and ovarian cancer risk.7

Lactose and galactose
It has been suggested that lactose, in particular its metabolite galactose, may be toxic to oocytes. Yet, according to study findings, lactose and galactose do not appear to be associated with ovarian cancer risk.3,4 In addition, the World Cancer Research Fund International report states that the evidence on lactose and ovarian cancer is limited and no conclusion can be drawn.2

IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1)
There are also concerns about IGF-1, a hormone with a mitotic effect that is present in milk.

However, the role of IGF-1 in ovarian cancer is unclear, as IGF-1 synthesis is upregulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH), whereas the calcium found in milk suppresses PTH production.8

Conclusions

The scientific evidence does not support an association between milk and milk products and an increased risk of ovarian cancer. 

References

  1. Canadian Cancer Society. 2016. What is ovarian cancer? www.cancer.ca. Accessed August 3, 2016.
  2. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. 2014. Continuous Update Project report: Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of ovarian cancer. www.wcrf.org. Accessed August 3, 2016.
  3. Liu J et al. Milk, yogurt, and lactose intake and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis. Nutr Cancer 2015;67:68-72.
  4. Merritt MA et al. Dairy food and nutrient intake in different life periods in relation to risk of ovarian cancer. Cancer Causes Control 2014;25:795-808.
  5. Merritt MA et al. Nutrient-wide association study of 57 foods/nutrients and epithelial ovarian cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study and the Netherlands Cohort Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2016;103:161-167.
  6. Weaver CM. Role of dairy beverages in the diet. Physiol Behav 2010;100:63-66.
  7. Yin L et al. Meta-analysis: circulating vitamin D and ovarian cancer risk. Gynecol Oncol 2011;121:369-375.
  8. Kiani F et al. Dietary risk factors for ovarian cancer: the Adventist Health Study (United States). Cancer Causes Control 2006;17:137-146.

Keywords: ovarian cancer , cancer , calcium


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