According to a study by Mayo Clinic researchers, patients who develop ovarian cancer appear to have better outcomes if they have previously taken oral contraceptives. Findings were published in the current issue of the journal BMC Cancer.

In this study, Aminah Jatoi, MD, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic and co-author Ellen L. Goode, PhD, an epidemiologist at Mayo Clinic, examined the outcomes of ovarian cancer patients who were seen at Mayo Clinic from 2000 through 2013. Of the 1,398 patients who filled out a risk factor questionnaire about prior oral contraceptive, 827 responded that they had previously taken birth control pills.

Compared to those who had not been on oral contraceptives, patients who had taken the pill had improved progression-free survival as well as overall survival. A second analysis indicated a statistically significant association between oral contraceptive use and progression-free survival, but not overall survival. One possible explanation for this finding was older patients who may have died from non-cancer causes, although other factors may have come into play.

Dr. Jatoi says there are various hypotheses on how oral contraceptives improve outcomes for ovarian cancer patients. By halting ovulation, oral contraceptives protect against the repeated monthly changes that occur on the surface of the ovary. Contraceptives may reduce the risk of DNA mutations and thereby result in a less aggressive form of the disease at a later date.

“Without question, further studies are needed in this area,” says Dr. Jatoi, “but our study might provide a sense of hope for patients who are struggling with ovarian cancer.”

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