CANCER CARE

Can the Birth Control Pill Prevent Cancer?

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
 | 
November 09, 2015

Women who use the pill have a lower risk for uterine cancer.

If you’ve taken birth control pills for a while, there’s good news for your health.

Researchers who examined data from thousands of women have determined that use of the birth control pill prevented about 200,000 cases of endometrial (uterine) cancer in the past 10 years alone.

They estimate that up to 400,000 cases of cancer have been prevented in women taking the pill over the past 50 years. The mechanism, study authors say, lies in making the body behave as if you’re pregnant.

That makes the level of estrogen in your body drop, leading to lower risk of uterine cancer.

 

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The study concludes that for every five years you’ve taken an oral contraceptive, your cancer risk is lowered by 25 percent. Lowered risk continued for up to 30 years after the women in the study stopped using the pill, which suggests the effect on your body is prolonged.

There has been similar research involving ovarian cancer. The National Cancer Institute believes that taking the pill for five years or longer cuts your risk in half.

Other studies have suggested the pill increases your risk of breast and cervical cancers. The effect is believed slight, however, and the risk disappears after you stop taking oral contraceptives. Still, there remains a debate over the level of risk.

The studies and their results beg the question over whether you should be prescribed oral contraceptives specifically to reduce cancer risk.

What became oral contraceptives actually began 65 years ago as treatment for menstrual disorders and infertility. Three years later, they were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for birth control.

“Oral contraceptives are now prescribed widely for several other indications, ranging from acne to endometriosis, some of which are FDA-approved for women who have also chosen to use oral contraceptives for birth control,” said commentary accompanying The Lancet study on decreased cancer risk.

The commentary authors added that ongoing studies are looking at the use of oral contraceptives as chemoprevention for women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations and Lynch syndrome.

BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 are genes that tell the body to make a protein that acts as a tumor suppressor and repairs damaged DNA. Thousands of mutations of these genes have been identified, and some specific inherited mutations increase the risk of breast cancer and cancer of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the lining of the abdomen.

Lynch syndrome, sometimes referred to as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, increases the risk of many types of cancer. In women, it carries a high risk of ovarian cancer.

“Even if the biological mechanisms remain elusive and the existing evidence falls short of wider recommendations for chemoprevention, women need to be more aware of the unintended benefits and the risks of oral contraceptives, so that they can make informed decisions,” the authors of the commentary write.

Australian researchers have suggested that nuns, who don’t need to be worried about birth control, could benefit from oral contraceptives. Their argument is that women who do not have children have a higher risk of reproductive cancers.

Even the Roman Catholic Church’s manifesto on its opposition to birth control acknowledges that therapeutic agents that work against disease could be used, even if they provide contraception as well.

“The Church has never opposed using contraceptive medications when they are medically indicated,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Time magazine.

“The issue presented in ‘The Lancet’ is a medical, not a moral one. … The chemicals found in birth control pills may have a valid medical use, for some conditions and some women. That doesn’t pose a fundamental moral problem if the drugs are not used for a contraceptive purpose.”

The choice, of course, is yours. If you have a religious or moral code against the use of contraception, that’s your right. But consider that even the Catholic Church acknowledges and accepts oral contraception use against disease.

“Women considering taking (oral contraceptives) for any reason should first discuss the possible risks and benefits with their doctor,” says the American Cancer Association.

One study found that while contraception is the most common reason American women use the pill, about 14 percent (1.5 million) 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.

“It is well established that oral contraceptives are essential health care 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.” 

Updated:

November 09, 2015

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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