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Study links ovarian cancer, milk
Critics say health benefits of dairy products outweigh any small risks

Charlie Fidelman
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August 5, 2005

Once a star food -- a tasty cocktail full of calcium, protein, minerals and vitamins thought essential for healthy bones -- milk is now souring in controversy.

New research shows a link between dairy products and ovarian cancer.

Published in the International Journal of Cancer today, the study reveals a 13% increase in ovarian cancer risk with a daily increase of 10 grams of lactose -- about one glass of milk.

Experts are calling it a "modest" but significant finding.

The study's lead investigator, epidemiologist Dr. Susanna Larsson, said she is not recommending women stop drinking milk -- until further studies are done.

"In the future, when we know more about possible interactions between milk consumption and genetic susceptibility, it might be that some women should not drink milk because of a high risk of developing ovarian cancer," said Dr. Larsson, of the National Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm.

Based on animal studies, researchers proposed that consuming lactose (milk sugar) increases the risk factor for ovarian cancer.

Dr. Larsson's study, which pooled statistics from 21 studies following nearly 4,000 women, showed varied findings in cancer risks.

Whole milk was associated with the highest increased risk in all 21 studies.

But three studies identified total consumption of dairy products -- including low-fat milk but excluding hard cheese, which has less lactose -- with an increased risk.

These studies did not identify women with a genetic susceptibility for ovarian cancer.

"We don't know how much milk is too much for women with genetic predisposition. Perhaps they shouldn't drink milk at all," Dr. Larsson said. "Perhaps lactose-free milk is safe. More research in this area is needed."

The latest finding comes on the heels of a Harvard study that showed more than three glasses of milk a day could lead to obesity in children.

An estimated 2,400 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed this year and about 1,550 women will die of the disease, according to Canadian Cancer Society figures.

"It's a very lethal disease," said gynecological oncologist Dr. Gerald Stanimir, a past president of the Society of Gynecologists of Canada.

Only one in five women with the illness will survive more than five years.

"The death rate is so high because the disease, unfortunately, is diagnosed in late stages," Dr. Stanimir said.

But there is no evidence in Dr. Larsson's study to suggest eating fewer dairy products will prevent ovarian cancer, Dr. Stanimir noted.

"The study raises an interesting finding that may require further rigid, academic study," he said.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada was quick to dismiss the study.

"It's an observational study and it says nothing about cause and effect," said Solange Heiss, the association's assistant director for marketing and nutrition. "There's nothing conclusive that says it's bad for you."

But a bulk of medical studies show the benefits of dairy products, she added.

Evidence suggests a diet rich in vitamin D cuts the risk of colon cancer and helps ward off breast cancer. Consumption of low-fat dairy foods may also lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.