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Birth control pills and cancer

Birth control pills (so called “pills”) first became available to American women in the early 1960s. The convenience, effectiveness, and reversibility of action of birth control pills have made them the most popular form of birth control in the United States. However, concerns have been raised about the role that the hormones in pills might play in a number of cancers, and how hormone-based pills contribute to their development. Sufficient time has elapsed since the introduction of pills to allow investigators to study large numbers of women who took birth control pills for many years.

Some studies have shown an increased risk of breast cancer in women taking birth control pills, while other studies have shown no change in risk

Birth control pills use has been shown in multiple studies to decrease the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer

Birth control pills have been shown to increase the risk of cervical cancer; however, human papillomavirus is the major risk factor for this disease
The risk of liver cancer is increased in women who take birth control pills and are otherwise considered low risk for the disease

Why do researchers believe that Birth control pills may influence cancer risk?

Birth control pills and cancer

Birth control pills and cancer

Currently, two types of pills are available in the United States. The most commonly prescribed pills contains two man-made versions of natural female hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that are similar to the hormones the ovaries normally produce. This type of pill is often called a “combined oral contraceptive.” The second type of pills available in the United States is called the mini-pill. It contains only a type of progesterone.

Estrogen stimulates the growth and development of the uterus at puberty, causes the endometrium (the inner lining of the uterus) to thicken during the first half of the menstrual cycle, and influences breast tissue throughout life, but particularly from puberty to menopause.

Progesterone, which is produced during the last half of the menstrual cycle, prepares the endometrium to receive the egg. If the egg is fertilized, progesterone secretion continues, preventing release of additional eggs from the ovaries. For this reason, progesterone is called the “pregnancy-supporting” hormone, and scientists believe that it has valuable contraceptive effects. The man-made progesterone used in pills is called progestogen or progestin.

Because medical research suggests that some cancers depend on naturally occurring sex hormones for their development and growth, scientists have been investigating a possible link between pills use and cancer risk. Researchers have focused a great deal of attention on pills users over the past 40 years. This scrutiny has produced a wealth of data on pills use and the development of certain cancers, although results of these studies have not always been consistent. The risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers is reduced with the use of pills, while the risk of breast and cervical cancers is increased.

Cancer screening tests

Studies have found that regular breast cancer screening with mammograms reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer for women ages 40 to 69. Women who are at increased risk for breast cancer should seek medical advice about when to begin having mammograms and how often to be screened. A high-quality mammogram, with a clinical breast exam (an exam done by a professional health care provider), is the most effective way to detect breast cancer early.

Abnormal changes in the cervix can often be detected by a Pap test and treated before cancer develops. Women who have begun to have sexual intercourse or are age 21 should check with their doctor about having a Pap test.

Women who are concerned about their risk for cancer are encouraged to talk with their health care provider.

(Info from National Cancer Institute – http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral-contraceptives)


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