Do birth control pills increase my risk for cancer?

March 14, 2018 | by Christine Gresik, MD

We get it. Just reading the headline may be intimidating to you, but it doesn’t have to be. If taken correctly, birth control pills can be a safe, simple and convenient way to prevent pregnancy. It also has other benefits too, like reducing acne, making periods regular and easing menstrual cramps. 

But like any medication, there are risks. According to a recent study, birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs) that use hormones to block pregnancy may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. The increase is unique to each woman and can depend on:

  • A woman’s age
  • Her general health
  • Her personal risk of breast cancer
  • Other breast cancer risk factors, like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and obesity 

The results of this study showed that it didn’t matter what type of hormonal method was used — the pill, patch, ring or implant — there was roughly a 20 percent increased risk for breast cancer among women who use some type of hormonal contraception. The risk increases with longer use – from a 9 percent increase associated with less than a year of use, to a 38 percent increase after more than 10 years of use. 

Here’s what is important to know: the risk of breast cancer for most young women is low. Fewer than 5 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. are younger than 40. So for these women, the extra risk is quite small.

Also, once a woman stops taking birth control pills, her risk begins to decrease over time and returns to that of a woman who has never taken the pill. 

On the flip side, research has also shown that birth control pills can slightly lower the risk of certain other cancers. A recent study from JAMA Oncology discovered that women who take oral contraceptives for at least a decade may be less likely to develop ovarian and endometrial cancers — no matter what their other lifestyle risk factors may be.

When compared to women who used oral contraceptives for a year or less, women who took the pill for at least 10 years were 40 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer and 35 percent less likely to develop endometrial tumors.

So what does this research mean for you? Any type of birth control or medication has both benefits and risks. Keep in mind, there are also alternatives to hormonal birth control, including non-hormonal IUDs and barrier methods like condoms and diaphragms. Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons and determine which contraceptive method works best for you. 

Learn more about breast health at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

Knowledge is power in breast cancer prevention 

Does a lump always mean cancer?

 

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