A prospective study of dietary lactose and ovarian cancer

Int J Cancer. 2004 Jun 10;110(2):271-7. doi: 10.1002/ijc.20086.


The milk sugar lactose is an hypothesized risk factor for epithelial ovarian cancer because of possible direct toxic effects of its metabolites on oocytes or by compensatory gonadotropin stimulation. Women are presently encouraged to consume dairy products as a source of calcium to prevent osteoporosis. The objective of our study was to prospectively assess lactose, milk and milk product consumption in relation to ovarian cancer risk among 80326 participants in the Nurses' Health Study who had no history of cancer other than nonmelanoma skin cancer. Participants in the Nurses' Health Study reported on known and suspected ovarian cancer risk factors in questionnaires mailed biennially from 1976 to 1996. Food frequency questionnaires were included in the years 1980, 1984, 1986 and 1990. Newly reported ovarian cancer was documented by review of medical records. During 16 years of follow-up (1980-1996), 301 cases of invasive epithelial ovarian cancer were confirmed. Pooled logistic regression was used to control for age, body mass index (kg/m(2)), caffeine intake, oral contraceptive use, smoking history, parity and tubal ligation. For all subtypes of invasive ovarian cancer combined, we observed a nonsignificant 40% greater risk for women in the highest category of lactose consumption compared to the lowest (multivariate relative risk (RR) 1.40, 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.98-2.01). We observed a 2-fold higher risk of the serous ovarian cancer subtype among those in the highest category of lactose consumption compared to the lowest (RR 2.07, 95% CI, 1.27-3.40). For each 11-gram increase in lactose consumption (the approximate amount in one glass of milk), we observed a 20% increase in risk of serous cancers (RR 1.20, 95% CI, 1.04-1.39). Skim and low-fat milk were the largest contributors to dietary lactose. Women who consumed one or more servings of skim or low-fat milk daily had a 32% higher risk of any ovarian cancer (RR 1.32, 95% CI, 0.97-1.82) and a 69% higher risk of serous ovarian cancer (RR 1.69, 95% CI, 1.12-2.56) compared to women consuming 3 or less servings monthly. Controlling for fat intake did not change our findings. Our findings provide some support for the hypothesis that lactose intake increases risk of epithelial ovarian cancer. However, the observed excess risk appeared limited to the serous subtype of ovarian cancer in our study.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Calcium / administration & dosage
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / analysis
  • Lactose / administration & dosage*
  • Middle Aged
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • UTP-Hexose-1-Phosphate Uridylyltransferase / metabolism


  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I
  • UTP-Hexose-1-Phosphate Uridylyltransferase
  • Lactose
  • Calcium