DAILY NEWS CONTRIBUTOR
Monday, March 21, 2016, 1:00 PM
Dr. David Samadi says recent cases have pushed us to reexamine whether there’s a link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder.
Recent headlines have pointed to baby powder as a cause of ovarian cancer.
Although the debate over whether or not this is true has been a question asked since the 1970s, a recent court case that awarded damages to the family of a woman who used baby powder for feminine hygiene and died of ovarian cancer, pushes us to reexamine the link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder.
Is baby powder something to be avoided? Or are these headlines unwarranted and over-exaggerated? Let’s explore.
What’s the story with baby powder?
Baby powder is a common name for talcum powder, which is made from talc, a form of the mineral ore magnesium silicate.
Over the centuries, aside from its cosmetic uses, talc has been used to make ceramics, paints, paper and roofing materials. Safety concerns regarding talc first arose in this industrial setting, where the levels and length of exposure to the substance were much higher.
Interestingly, talc and asbestos are often found near each other (occurring naturally this way), so when talc is mined it can become contaminated with asbestos.
When evidence emerged regarding the link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer, this also triggered scientists to explore the link between talc exposure and ovarian cancer.
The theory was that when used as a feminine hygiene product, the powder could potentially reach the ovaries by traveling through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes, and increase the risk of cancer.
Talc products meant for personal use went asbestos-free in the 1970s, but investigators weren’t satisfied. They still believed that talc, not only asbestos, increased the risk of ovarian cancer in women who used it for feminine hygiene. Thus research was refocused on asbestos-free baby powder.
Baby powder and ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women. This equates to about 250,000 women newly diagnosed annually, and 140,000 annual deaths from ovarian cancer.
Although ovarian cancer can occur at any age, women above the age of 60 are at higher risk. Statistically, about half of diagnoses occur in women 63 years old and above. When diagnosis occurs in younger women, the cases are often more aggressive.
Aside from its cosmetic uses, talc has been used to make ceramics, paints, paper and roofing materials. Safety concerns regarding talc first arose in this industrial setting, where the levels and length of exposure to the substance were much higher.
Ovarian cancer has several known risk factors, like age, obesity, family history and a personal history of breast cancer. Now, talcum powder can be added to that list of known risk factors.
Of course, each of these risk factors is weighted differently, some putting you at higher risk than others. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed talcum body powder as associated with ovarian cancer when it is used between the legs. Through studies they have observed a “modest but unusually consistent excess in risk” in many of the case-control studies reviewed.
The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, notes that studies have had mixed findings, but still acknowledge a probable small risk. Despite what they consider a small risk, baby powder is very widely used in many households, and talcum powder is part of many different types of products.
More recent scientific studies continue to confirm a trend that links the use of this powder to the most common type of ovarian cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer.
While using talcum powder might only put you at a small-to-moderate increase in risk for ovarian cancer, it is also one of the only risks you can avoid. Most of the other risks are unavoidable, so discontinuing the use of baby powder, especially for feminine hygiene, would seem like a prudent policy, even if that makes you overly cautious.
Overall, most cancers are not preventable. However, being aware of the symptoms will allow for early diagnosis (when the disease is more easily treatable.)
The best way women can keep themselves aware is by having a pelvic exam done each year. It is important that your physician is aware of your medical and family history so that all risk factors are taken into account. Routine pap smears do not detect ovarian cancer.
The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms like urgency and frequency. These symptoms may also be caused by non-cancerous diseases and other types of cancers.
Symptoms that are persistent and more severe are more concerning, especially if a woman has symptoms more than 12 times a month. If so, a women should see her gynecologist.
Other symptoms may include fatigue, upset stomach, back pain, pain during sex, constipation, menstrual changes, and abdominal swelling with weight loss.
Dr. David Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery, and an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team and the chief medical correspondent for am970 in New York City, where he is heard Sundays at 10 a.m. Learn more at roboticoncology.com and SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter and Facebook.
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