Patients often ask me whether taking birth control pills can increase the risk of getting cancer. A new study sheds more light on the answer, revealing that women who take oral contraception might be protected against some cancers for decades.
Since the medication contains female hormones, researchers have been interested in determining whether there is any link between these widely used contraceptives and cancer risk.
Decades of Research
For this study, researchers from the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom followed participants for 44 years, which is the longest-running evaluation of oral contraception use ever conducted in the world. Since the study has been going for such a long time, they were able to look at the very long-term effects associated with the pill.
The protective benefits from using the pill during reproductive years lasted for at least 30 years after women have stopped using the pill.
They found that women who had ever used oral contraceptive pills were at lower risk of colorectal, ovarian, and endometrial cancers, compared with women who had never used it. The protective benefits from using the pill during reproductive years lasted for at least 30 years after women have stopped using the pill.
The study also found no link between the use of oral contraceptives during reproductive years and increased risk of new cancers in later life.
Understanding the Limitations
It’s important to note there were some limitations to the study. For example, it started almost 50 years ago, when birth control pills contained 50 micrograms of estrogen. Most pills today contain about 30 – 30 micrograms. In addition, the average time these women were on birth control was 3.66 years, while most people now stay on for much longer.
This should help give peace of mind to women taking birth control, and reassure them that it doesn’t contribute to an increased lifetime risk of cancer.
As I tell my patients, there are risks involved in taking any medication. The study did find an increased risk for breast and cervical cancer — though the risk disappeared after five years of discontinuing it. Also, all contraceptives have a slight increased risk of blood clots.
Overall, this should help give peace of mind to women taking birth control, and reassure them that it doesn’t contribute to an increased lifetime risk of cancer. Hormonal contraception is safe and effective and can help with a host of health issues — like alleviating PCOS, endometriosis, and helping with PMS and acne. As this study shows, it may also have an impressive long-term protective health effect.
For more information on oral contraception, speak with a physician at Baylor Scott & White Health.