Oral contraceptive pills have been an effective form of birth control since the 1960s in the US. In order to prevent pregnancy, most oral contraceptive pills contain synthetic versions of the female hormones estrogen, progesterone, and, progestin. Progesterone and estrogen have been associated with some types of cancers .
The association between these hormones and cancer can be confusing and intimidating, especially if you are taking or planning to take oral contraceptive pills. Trying to find information about the link can be just as confusing. While some experts say that the benefits of the pill are greater than the risks, others claim just the opposite. So, which is the truth?
Does taking an oral contraceptive increase your risk for cancer? The answer is: maybe. Although the research is not conclusive, most studies have found that oral contraceptive use has two benefits . It reduces the risk for endometrial and ovarian cancer. And it increases the risk for breast, liver, and cervical cancer.
Breast cancer and oral contraceptive use
A study published in 1996 took a look at 53 epidemiological studies in order to understand the risks of developing breast cancer . The results suggested that women taking an oral contraceptive had a small increase in risk. This continued to be true for the first 10 years after a woman decided to stop taking the pill. The second conclusion was that the risk diminished 10 years after stopping use.
Another study found that only high-dose estrogen pills were associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer . Most women today take an oral contraceptive with a low dose of estrogen. Other factors associated with breast cancer include: family history of the disease, previous biopsies with abnormal cells, young age at first menstruation, older age with first pregnancy, and having no children .
Liver cancer and oral contraceptive use
Oral contraceptive use has been linked to an increased risk for hepatocellular adenomas, a large, but non-cancerous, tumor . It is, however, highly likely to rupture and has a 20% to 40% chance of bleeding. When women have these tumors, the risk of them becoming cancerous is only 4% .
The research results on oral contraceptive use and cancerous liver tumors is unclear. Some studies indicate that there is a link between the two, while others suggest there is not.
Cervical cancer and oral contraceptive use
Using birth control pills for longer than five years could cause an increased risk for cervical cancer . That risk increases with long-term use and is believed to be three times higher than in women who have never taken the pill. The risk does, however, decrease once the woman no longer takes the oral contraceptive.
An oral contraceptive does not work alone to cause cervical cancer. The vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by the presence of the human papilloma virus (HPV). Some researchers believe the hormones in the pill may change cells located in the cervix, making them more likely to be infected by HPV . The birth control pill might also assist an HPV infection to develop cancer.
Endometrial and ovarian cancer
Hormonal birth control has been linked to decreased risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers . Several studies of women around the world have found that for every five years a woman takes an oral contraceptive, her risk of developing endometrial cancer is reduced by 24%. This protection continued for approximately 30 years and was not diminished after stopping oral contraceptive use.
Additionally, taking an oral contraceptive results in anovulation , which is when ovulation does not happen. This has also been linked to reduced risk of ovarian cancer. Many medical professionals consider this to be one of the biggest unexpected benefits of oral contraceptives.
Now that you know the potential link between using an oral contraceptive and developing cancer, it’s a good idea to consider all of your family planning options. Discuss with your doctor any concerns you may have. It’s important for you to determine if the benefits of hormonal birth control pills outweigh the risks.
If you decide that you’re uncomfortable with the idea of taking an oral contraceptive, there are other contraceptive methods available. Other forms of birth control include:
This is a low cost, widely available alternative to hormonal birth control pills. It is 82% effective at preventing pregnancy.
The sponge costs between $4 and $6 and is available in most pharmacies. It contains spermicide and is between 76% and 88% effective at preventing pregnancy.
Copper Intrauterine Device (IUD)
A doctor places the IUD inside your uterus. It remains in place for several years and prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in your uterus. It can be expensive depending on your insurance coverage and is 99% effective.
There are many other options available. Talk to your doctor to figure out which one is best for you.
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