JUL 26, 2017 5:46 PM PDT

The Milk Diet that Could Lower Ovarian Cancer Risks


Although overall cancer risks are on the decline, the African American group still has the highest cancer death rate of any ethnic groups. But perhaps results from a study could help to improve these statistics for at least ovarian cancer in this population. The study found that dietary changes, specifically more calcium and less lactose, could reduce the risk of ovarian cancer in African American women.

Ovarian cancers have one of the highest mortality rates, ranking fifth in cancer deaths among women. Of the 22,000 new estimated cases of ovarian cancer this year, only 10-15 percent of patients will be successfully treated. Unfortunately, in the large percent of remaining patients, the cancer doesn’t respond to treatment, or will inevitably return with a vengeance.

The five-year survival rate appears to be improving for Caucasian women, but not for African American women. Scientists studying this link implicated potential dairy factors as causative, but this association has been weak. Thus, researchers at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey decided to embark on one of the largest controlled epidemiological studies to understand the link between dairy consumption and ovarian cancer in African Americans.

The study’s cohort was impressive: 490 African American women with ovarian cancer, and 656 health African American women as controls. With this large cohort, the team found that increasing lactose – the sugar found in milk – was associated with higher ovarian cancer risks for women. Consequently, whole milk appeared to increase ovarian cancer risks, while skim or low-fat milk did not. In addition, calcium seems to have protective effects for these women, as the team found an association between calcium intake and decreased ovarian cancer risks.

Surprisingly, the team also noted that increased sun exposure appears to reduce ovarian cancer risks. This is, of course, offset by the risks of skin cancer with increased sun exposure. "Because the benefits of increased sun exposure in African-American women may be offset by an increased risk of skin cancer, a combination of moderate sun exposure coupled with sufficient vitamin D intake from diet and supplements may be a safer solution for adequate vitamin D levels," said Bo Qin, the study’s first author.

So what does this mean for African American women who want to reduce their ovarian cancer risks? First, it should be noted that the results are from an association study – this means that it’s difficult to draw accurate cause-effect conclusions based on this study alone. However, given the results, perhaps it may not be a bad idea for this population to incorporate more calcium-rich foods in their diet while reducing lactose intake. Increasing calcium can also help combat osteoporosis, which is more prevalent in women in general.

"Given that we were able to recruit a large sample of healthy African-American women and those with ovarian cancer from various geographic regions with diverse socioeconomic and lifestyle characteristics, we are able to generalize our findings to the African-American population," said Elisa Bandera, the study’s senior author. "Considering there is no effective screening tool for ovarian cancer and that African-American patients have poor survival rates with this disease, prevention through lifestyle or dietary modifications is critical."

Additional sources: Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey via Science Daily


About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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