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‘Couch potatoes’ have greater ovarian cancer risk, Buffalo researchers say

Attention, female couch potatoes: physical inactivity may significantly increase your risk of developing and dying from ovarian cancer.

That’s the key message from two new studies led by Buffalo researchers showing that even modest amounts of exercise, such as taking the stairs at work or walking the dog at home, can reduce the risks of a disease that will kill more than estimated 14,200 women this year.

The idea that exercise may be good for preventing or treating cancer is not new. However, studies looking at whether physical activity offered potential benefits in ovarian cancer have so far been inconsistent.

These latest studies flipped the question and asked whether lack of exercise increased risks, and the findings offered a more compelling answer.

“What we found, is that it is not OK to do nothing. Physical inactivity over a lifetime increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer and makes it more likely you will die if you get it,” said Dr. Kirsten Moysich, senior author and a distinguished professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The study on risk published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarker & Prevention evaluated nine previous studies of 8,309 ovarian cancer patients and 12,612 women without cancer performed by the Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium, an international group of investigators who pool their data. Women who reported a lifetime of physical inactivity had a 34 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

The study on mortality in the British Journal of Cancer included 6,806 women from 12 previous studies and found that those who were inactive had between a 22 percent to 34 percent higher risk of death compared to women who reported that they engaged at least in some regular weekly activity.

Women don’t have to run marathons to benefit. They just have to incorporate in their lives modest amounts of exercise other than tending to daily activities, said Moysich. She cited as examples such steps as regularly getting up from a desk at work and taking a brief walk, or parking the car at a farther space at the supermarket to lengthen the walk to the store.

The findings offer more evidence that cancer, in many instances, is a preventable disease.

“I have not been as excited about results in a long time,” said Moysich.

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, the reproductive glands in women. An estimated 22,280 women will be diagnosed with the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Prevention takes on great importance in ovarian cancer because usually there are no early obvious signs of disease. Nor is there a routine screening test.

The five-year survival rate after diagnosis is 46 percent and the 10-year rate is 35 percent American Cancer Society statistics show. Only 15 percent of cases are diagnosed early before the tumor has spread.

Moysich said researchers started out looking at whether exercise helps prevent ovarian cancer, but didn’t think they could get a clear picture because the studies they examined used different ways of measuring physical activity. She credited Michael LaMonte, a University at Buffalo research associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, with suggesting the project focus on physical inactivity instead.

Like studies that look at exercise, a limitation in this work is that the information is self-reported. People tend to exaggerate how much they exercise, which makes interpreting links with cancer difficult. But Moysich said researchers believe there is significantly more accurate self-reporting of physical inactivity, giving them greater confidence in the results of these studies.

“While the current evidence regarding the association between different amounts of physical activity and ovarian cancer remains mixed, our findings demonstrate that chronic inactivity may be an important independent risk and prognostic factor for ovarian cancer,” Rikki Cannioto, research affilate at Roswell Park and first author of the studies, said in a statement.