The Pill and Cancer: What You Should Know
Focused on Health - January 2012
by Laura Nathan-Garner
Does your birth control pill put you at risk for cancer? Or, does it actually protect you from the disease? Recent headlines might have you wondering.
Here’s what researchers know: oral contraceptives — better known as the pill — may impact a woman’s chances of developing breast and gynecologic cancers. In some cases, that means a bigger chance of cancer. In others, it means protection against cancer.
The reason? Most oral contraceptives contain man-made versions of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. And, taking the pill changes your hormone levels, which can trigger — or, in some cases, prevent — some female cancers.
Below, we break down the pill’s protective benefits and risks.
Protective perks include lower ovarian and endometrial cancer risks
Taking the pill may help cut your risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial (uterine) cancer. That’s probably because women who take the pill ovulate, or release eggs from the ovary, fewer times than women who don’t take the pill. The more times you ovulate, the more hormones you’re exposed to.
The longer you take the pill, the greater the benefits. In fact, taking the pill for five years or longer may cut your ovarian cancer risk in half. That protection may last up to 25 years after you stop taking the pill, says the National Cancer Institute. Studies even suggest the pill may protect against ovarian cancer in women with BRCA genetic mutations.
And, that’s not the only good news. Taking the pill for at least four years may cut your endometrial cancer risk in half if you’re at average risk of the disease. Even better: this protection lasts for 10 years after you stop taking the pill.
Breast and cervical cancer risks are higher — but just slightly
Have you been on the pill for several years? It may slightly raise your breast and cervical cancer risks. But this slight increase is only temporary. And, your risk returns to normal about five years after you go off the pill.
“Plus, if you’re in your teens, 20s, 30s or early 40s (the ages when most women take the pill), your cancer risk is low,” says Helen E. Rhodes, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. “So, that potential increased risk from taking the pill is even smaller for you.”
Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Take note: research shows that taking the pill doesn’t increase breast cancer risk much for women with BRCA genetic mutations or a family history of the disease.
Don’t lose sight of bigger cancer risk factors
The pill isn’t the only thing that puts you at risk for cancer. And, it’s certainly not the biggest thing.
For instance, more cases of cervical cancer are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) than by taking the pill. So, be sure to protect yourself from HPV, get tested for HPV, and get vaccinated against HPV if you’re eligible.
And, aging, being overweight, along with your reproductive history and family history may also put you at higher risk for some gynecological cancers.
Consider other health risks when choosing birth control
“Talk to your doctor and weigh all of the pros and cons before deciding if the pill is right for you,” Rhodes says.
After all, the pill may put some women at increased risk for other health problems, such as blood clots, heart disease and stroke. And, some women can’t remember to take a pill every day.
“Don’t pick your birth control based on the cancer risks alone,” Rhodes says. “The best birth control method is the one that works best for your lifestyle and your health concerns.”