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Oral Contraceptives and Cancer – Is There a Link?

October 21, 2016

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If you’re a woman who takes birth control pills, you might wonder about the possible effects (if any) on your health, and specifically, your risk of developing various types of cancer. After all, there is a lot of confusing information circulating in the media. For instance, some reports suggest that oral contraceptives can increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer, while others claim that they have a protective effect, and can actually lower a woman’s cancer risk. Who and what should you believe?

The truth about the pill is not so cut and dried. There are many different types of oral contraceptives, and most contain synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone (female sex hormones). In some individuals, a change in a hormone level can trigger the development of cancer, while in others, it can help prevent it.

Here is a brief summary of what is known about the cancer-related benefits and risks associated with oral contraceptives:

  • The pill can potentially lower a woman’s risk of developing ovarian and uterine (endometrial) cancers. This finding is believed to be related to the fact that oral contraceptives work by suppressing ovulation (the release of eggs from the ovaries). The fewer times a woman ovulates during her lifetime, the lower her (potentially cancer-causing) hormone exposure will be. This protective effect may last for up to several years after a woman stops taking the pill.
  • The pill can slightly increase a woman’s risk of developing breast and cervical cancers. This effect is believed to be temporary; in general, a woman’s risk level will return to normal within five years after she stops using oral contraceptives. Additionally, most women who take the pill are under age 40, and therefore naturally have a lower cancer risk than older women. It’s also notable that the risk increase is negligible in women who have BRCA genetic mutations or a family history of breast or gynecological cancer.

It’s important for every woman to keep in mind that, in addition to taking the pill, there are many other factors that can contribute to her risk of developing cancer. For instance, far more cervical cancer cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) than by oral contraceptives. In addition, a woman’s age, body weight, reproductive history and family history can also play key roles in her overall health and risk level.

The bottom line is this: You shouldn’t select your birth control method based on cancer risk alone. Your physician can review the risks and benefits of each option in detail, and help you make the best choice possible based on your individual health and lifestyle.

If you have questions about your own cancer risk profile, you can speak with an expert at Moffitt without a referral. Call 1-888-MOFFITT or complete our new patient registration form online.