Birth Control and Cancer Prevention

By Richard Asa and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
May 02, 2023
Birth Control and Cancer Prevention

If you’ve taken birth control pills for a while, there’s good and bad news about breast and cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about your own vulnerabilities.

If you hear that “birth control is a big cancer risk,” you might worry. The truth is that birth control does increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer. But it cuts the risk of endometrialovarian, and colorectal  (colon) cancer.

What scientists know

Breast cancer 

On average, an American woman has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer. If you are taking the pill, your risk of breast cancer may be 24 percent higher than if you didn’t, according to a study with data from more than 150,000 women. In another study reporting the effects of recent forms of the pill, the increase in risk was about 20 percent.

Still, it’s rare for a woman to get breast cancer during her reproductive years, and the extra risk fades with time. You should get regular breast exams and tell your gynecologist about any family history of breast cancer.

Cervical cancer

The pill may make your body more susceptible to lingering infections from the high-risk forms of the HPV virus, which causes nearly all cervical cancers. Your risk of cervical cancer increases the longer you take the pill, possibly doubling after a decade of use.

Your sexual habits make a difference. The more partners you have, the higher your risk. Most people don’t know they’re carrying the virus and could infect you, so you can’t count on any warnings.

Your best strategy is to get Pap and HPV tests regularly, especially after you have a new partner.

Endometrial (uterine) cancer 

If you use the pill, you can lower your risk of endometrial cancer by 30 percent or more. Women who have other health risks — smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise — may benefit the most. Other research suggests that the protective effect lasts for as long as 30 years after you stop use.

The pill seems to suppress production of endometrial cells, the tissue lining the uterus you shed during your period.

Ovarian cancer

Taking the pill lowers your risk of ovarian cancer by as much as half. The protection may last for decades.

The pill may also confer protection to women carrying the harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, who are at greater risk for ovarian cancer.  

Women with Lynch syndrome, a genetic variation, are at high risk of both ovarian and colorectal cancer. The pill is sometimes prescribed to lower their risk.

Colorectal cancer

Don’t skip colonoscopies, an important test to take precancerous polyps and early colon cancer. But the pill can lower your risk of this cancer, possibly by as much as 20 percent.  

When birth control pill isn’t used for birth control

What became oral contraceptives began 65 years ago as treatment for menstrual disorders and infertility. Three years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved them for birth control.

Over time, doctors and their patients have discovered other uses. For example, while there is no cure for polycystic ovary syndrome, when benign cysts grow in your uterus, birth control pills can reduce symptoms.

Taking reproductive hormones can treat excessive menstrual bleeding, bleeding from uterine fibroids, period-related migraines, and pelvic pain from endometriosis.

Some women benefit greatly from being able to time heir periods.

Australian researchers have suggested that celibate nuns could benefit from oral contraceptives. Women who don’t have children are at higher risk of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers, which have afflicted nuns for centuries. The Roman Catholic church does not oppose birth control pills for medical use.  

One study found that while contraception is the most common reason American women use the pill, about 14 percent use it exclusively for other reasons.

The study also found that 58 percent of women who use the pill for contraception cite other reasons for taking it, including protection from cancer.

“It is well established that oral contraceptives are essential healthcare because they prevent unintended pregnancies,” said study author Rachel K. Jones of the Guttmacher Institute. “This study shows that there are other important health reasons why oral contraceptives should be readily available to the millions of women who rely on them each year.” 

What you can do

Tell your gynecologist about any cancers in your family or personal history. For some women, taking the pill may be a good health strategy even if they’re sexually inactive. For others, it is a matter of weighing pros and cons.


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May 02, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN