Causes of Cancer

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Cancer

If you’re a woman of childbearing age, chances are you know someone who has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS affects one in ten women between 15 and 44 years of age and can increase their risk of developing cancer later in life.

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a common health problem caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. The hormonal imbalance creates problems in the ovaries, preventing them from correctly developing an egg or releasing an egg during ovulation. When ovulation does not happen, the ovaries can develop many small cysts. These cysts make hormones called androgens, which cause more problems with a woman’s menstrual cycle. Most women find out they have PCOS in their 20s and 30s when they have difficulties getting pregnant.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

Symptoms of PCOS may include:

  • Missed periods, irregular periods, or very light periods
  • Ovaries that are large or have many cysts
  • Excess body hair, including the chest, stomach, and back 
  • Weight gain, especially around the belly 
  • Acne or oily skin
  • Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair
  • Infertility 
  • Small pieces of excess skin on the neck or armpits 
  • Dark or thick skin patches on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and under the breasts

How is PCOS treated?

While treatment options vary from person to person, the main distinction is whether the patient is trying to get pregnant. If they are trying for a baby, the medical team will likely recommend changing diet and activity or medications to cause ovulation. 

A change in diet and activity may result in weight loss, which can often reduce the symptoms. It can also help the body use insulin more efficiently, lower blood glucose levels, and may even help ovulation. 

Those who do not plan to get pregnant may also be treated with a change in diet and exercise. Other options that could also provide relief include birth control pills to help control menstrual cycles and lower androgen levels, diabetes medication to lower insulin resistance in PCOS, or medications to treat other specific symptoms like hair growth or acne. 

What is the link between PCOS and Cancer?

Hormone levels play a significant role when it comes to cancer risk. Women with PCOS and other factors that increase estrogen levels — including obesity, diabetes, or taking certain medications — are more likely to develop endometrial cancer than those without these factors. These women may also be at a higher risk of uterine cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. 

Reduce Your Risk

Thankfully, though it is not possible to prevent PCOS, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing cancers associated with PCOS. 

1.Treat PCOS

For those who have PCOS or think they may have PCOS, it is essential to speak to a doctor as soon as possible. If left untreated, hormone levels will remain abnormal, affecting the whole body and increase cancer risk.

2.Reach and maintain a healthy body weight

Women with PCOS are often obese or overweight. Obesity is a known risk factor for endometrial cancer as it also increases estrogen levels. Getting regular exercise and sticking to a healthy diet can help women lose excess pounds and minimize the risk of endometrial cancer, even with PCOS. 

3.Limit the amount of fat intake

Reducing the amount of fat in one’s diet can reduce endometrial cancer risk. Researchers found that fat affects how estrogen metabolizes and is used by the body, raising the chances of developing endometrial cancer.

4.Get regular Pap smears and pelvic exams

It is vital to keep an eye out for early signs of cancer. Regular pelvic exams with a gynecologist can help identify endometrial cancer early and begin treatment as needed.