Can the Birth Control Pill Cause Cancer?

There are many reasons why a women decides to get on birth control, whether it is to delay pregnancy or regulate one’s menstrual cycle.  But when you research online on whether you should start birth control, you may find yourself with an abundance of information contradicting whether or not birth control is linked to cancer.

Speaking with your doctor about starting birth control, and which kind of oral contraceptive is right for you, is important.  Your own genes can play a major role in determining if you are a high risk for cancer, with or without being on birth control.  Consider your family history, reproductive history, ethnic background, and even the geographic area of where you live can determine your risk of any of these cancers.  This article is to give you ideas on what you should be worried about and to encourage you to talk to your doctor.

Many oral contraceptives contain man-made versions of estrogen and progesterone.  When one takes these pills, it changes the hormone levels in the body.  In some cases, these changes have triggered cancer risks but have also prevented cancer in others.

According to the National Cancer Institute, studies have shown the risks of endometrial and ovarian cancer appear to be reduced with oral contraceptives.  But there was an increase to the risks of breast, cervical, and liver cancer.

Breast Cancer

Hormone and reproductive history are factors to being at risk of breast cancer.  Mainly, the breast tissue being exposed to high levels of hormones for long periods of time like starting menstruation at an early age.  Even experiencing menopause at a late age, pregnancy or not having children at all can be a factor in the increase risk of breast cancer.

In 1996, there where 50 studies done worldwide by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer.  They found that women who were currently or recent users of birth control pill, were at a slightly higher risk than women who had never used an oral contraceptive.  However, they also found that women who had stopped using the pill for 10 or more years had a lowered back to the normal risk factor.  Basically, their risk factor had returned to the same level it was before they had started using birth control.

Ovarian Cancer

The Cancer and Steroid Hormone study (CASH) researched the amount and type of hormones found in oral contraceptives can affect the risk of ovarian cancer.  They found that no matter the type or amount of estrogen and progestin in the pills, the reduction  in ovarian cancer was the same regardless.

Cervical Cancer

Researchers have found that long-term use of oral contraceptives have been associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.  Once women stopped taking the oral contraceptives, the risk decreased over time.  The risk decrease had no difference to how long they had used the contraceptives before they stopped.

However, researchers found that women who have been infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and took an oral contraceptive could be at a even greater risk for cervical cancer.  Hormones found in oral contraceptives can affect cervical cells, causing them to be more susceptible to HPV infection and progress to cervical cancer.  There is ongoing research that will be addressed on the risk of cervical cancer increased by oral contraceptives.

Mia Gaudet, Strategic Director of Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Research at the American Cancer Society, “There is consistent evidence that oral contraceptives (birth control pills) increase a woman’s risk of breast and cervical cancer but decrease the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer.”(1)’

Scientist at the National Cancer Institute have designed a tool to help calculate the risk of breast cancer.  Click on Breast Cancer Assessment Tool and answer the questions to see if you are at risk.  The tool is updated regularly and is only an estimation based off the how you answer the questions.  Speaking with your doctor if you think you are at risk is most important.  Overall, most of these studies were done with women who had taken older versions of birth control.  Studies are still being done to see if high or lower doses have any affects on the risk of breast and cervical cancer.  I highly recommend speaking with your health care provider about your risk and which birth control is right for you based on your hormone history, genes, age, and ethnic background.

*Note: This article is not to deter anyone from using birth control or to scare any current users.  It is simply to just inform possible and current users to speak with their health care provider about the risks.

Special thanks to Health for cover photo

Sources from:

American Cancer Society(1)

National Cancer Institute


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