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Antidepressants and Breast, Ovarian Cancer Link Suggested

| August 1, 2011

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Lisa Cosgrove led the Harvard Center for Ethics review of antidepressant research.

Authored by Lisa Cosgrove of the Harvard Center for Ethics, a recent statistical analysis of studies assessing the relationship between breast and ovarian cancer and antidepressant drug use finds possible link.

Are you one of the thousands of women currently taking antidepressants? A recent review indicates that these medications are not risk free, particularly for women.

The analysis of published studies suggests a link between breast and ovarian cancer and antidepressant drug usage. The review, which found an 11 percent increased risk overall in both breast and ovarian cancer for patients taking such medication, points to a need for further investigation, particularly since the results varied widely depending on who funded the research.

"I would want to consider nondrug treatment if I was mildly depressed, given our data," said Lisa Cosgrove of the Harvard Center for Ethics, who led the review of 61 studies. The increased risk was indicated with even short term or low dosage use of the medicine, and the link appeared strongest in cases of the widely used SSRI class of antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

Women are given a diagnosis of depression two times more often than men, and with over 11 percent of the United States population on antidepressant drugs, these new findings should have everyone concerned. In today’s “quick fix” world of medicine, antidepressants are prescribed for many conditions besides signs of depression. The wide range of other symptoms include headaches, neck and back pain, eating disorders, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and—even more unsettling given the link suggested by the review—often for hot flashes for women who have had breast cancer and cannot take estrogen.

What is also disturbing is that the research results vary widely depending on whether a study was funded by the pharmaceutical industry or considered “clean” research—research done with no ties to BigPharma. Not one study funded by the pharmaceutical industry reported a link between breast and ovarian cancer and the use of antidepressants. However, the “clean” research reported a 43 percent link between antidepressants and increased risk of the two types of cancer. One must wonder, how is it possible that not one of the industry funded studies yielded any linkage?

For those of you who pay close attention to the latest mammography guidelines, you’ll have noticed that they recently changed— U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now advises women to get their first annual screening at age 50. But Cosgrove’s findings, showing the breast cancer link, call for a reconsideration of the guidelines for those who are on antidepressants. Women taking these medications may consider starting their screenings at age 40, as is still currently advised by the American Cancer Society.

For some cases of severe depression, drug therapy is the only option. These cases are not the majority of women liberally dosed with antidepressants with the onset of the first sign of sadness, anxiety or uncomfortable feelings. Today there are many alternative methods to lessen the burden of depression. Individual and group talk therapy, movement therapy, meditation, nutritional remedies and body work are just a few of the possible options to try before choosing antidepressant drug therapy. Most remedies require more work than just “popping a pill,” but the reduced risk and the sense of empowerment are worth the effort.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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