When it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancy, oral contraceptives sound like an easy option. Simply take a pill each day and you can be ninety-nine percent sure you won’t become pregnant. Unfortunately, using birth control pills is not without health risks, including an increased risk of blood clots, blood pressure elevations, and a higher risk of benign tumors of the liver. For several years both researchers and the general public have been interested in whether use of oral contraceptives increases the risk of breast cancer.
Studies looking at this association have been mixed with some showing a slightly increased risk and others showing no risk elevation. Because most of the studies looking at birth control pills and breast cancer risk were carried out prior to 1990 when hormone concentrations in birth control pills were higher, no one was sure whether the pills with lower hormone formulations increased the risk of breast cancer. According to a new study, the association between an increased risk of breast cancer and the birth control pill appears to be real.
In this study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, almost 2,618 women were followed for fourteen years to determine whether taking oral contraceptives would increase their risk of breast cancer. The results? The study showed that more women who took oral contraceptives during the test period developed breast cancer than those who didn’t, suggesting an increased risk. The risk appeared to be greater for women who take birth control pills for longer periods of time and for black women.
This study raises concerns particularly for women who take birth control pills for longer periods of time. Some previous studies have shown that taking birth control pills prior to a first pregnancy may further elevate the risk. The good news is that some studies have demonstrated that after you’ve been off the birth control pill for ten years or more, the increased risk of breast cancer is significantly reduced.
Should you choose not to take birth control pills based on this study? Although using oral contraceptives does appear to mildly increase risk of breast cancer, it also has some positive benefits including lowering the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, reducing the severity of menstrual cramps, as well as relieving the symptoms of endometriosis and polycystic ovary disease. For this reason, it’s best to discuss your medical history with your doctor to see if taking birth control pills is right for you.
Since some studies have shown the increased risk of breast cancer associated with taking birth control pills is even higher in those with a positive family history, if you have a mother or several other relatives that have had breast cancer, it’s probably best to use an alternative form of contraception. It may also be wise, if you choose to take birth control pills, to use them only for a short period of time since the risk appears to rise with longer term use.