We Now Know More About the Link Between Birth Control & Breast Cancer

Sebastien_B  iStock  Thinkstock

Sebastien_B iStock Thinkstock

Whether it's the pill, the patch, or a range of other products, millions of women today use hormonal contraceptives; so it's little surprise that a new study shows that those who take them have an increased risk of breast cancer.

"This is an important study because we had no idea how the modern day pills compared to the old-fashioned pills in terms of breast cancer risk, and we didn't know anything about IUDs", Dr. Marisa Weiss, an oncologist who founded the website breastcancer.org and was not involved in the study told The New York Times.

Overall, the use of any hormone-based contraceptive for five years or more raised a woman's risk of breast cancer by 20 percent, Lina Morch of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But the researchers add, while this may sound scary, the overall risk of breast cancer remains small for many women; and the pill has its benefits.

Past research even suggests it protects against other types of cancer.

Two types of birth control pills are sold in the USA - one that combines synthetic versions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and the "minipill" that only delivers progestin, a synthetic formulation of progesterone. Therefore, it wasn't clear if this risk applied to newer formulations of birth control pills or to other birth control methods, including intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants that contain only the hormone progestin.

They found that women taking estrogen/progestin birth control pills have about a 20 percent increased risk of breast cancer.

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However, hormonal birth control does lower the risk of other cancers, including ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer, and it may lower the risk of colon cancer. The researchers used nationwide registries to collect information about prescriptions that were filled for hormonal contraception, as well as diagnoses of breast cancer.

Those who used them for longer periods were at even greater risk.

"When we look at all comers, the absolute overall increased risk of breast was one extra case of breast cancer for every 7,690 women using hormonal contraception for one year", said Dr. Rebecca Starck, a gynecologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

The risk was 9 percent higher with less than one year of use and 38 percent higher with more than 10 years of use. Women who used any form hormonal contraception for more than 10 years (1.38, 95% CI 1.26-1.51) had a higher risk compared to those who reported less than 1 year of use (1.09, 95% CI 0.96-1.23)(P=0.002), they wrote online in the New England Journal of Medicine. And for those who take the drugs for five years or more, the risk will persist for as long as five years after they stop, she said.

One thing reiterated by every doctor Newsweek spoke to: Women who are anxious about how their contraception might increase their risk of breast cancer should speak with their health care provider.

Still, the researchers noted that any unaccounted factors would need to have a large effect on the risk of breast cancer and be very common in the population to explain the results.

The study was funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, a commercial foundation in Denmark that funds research to support its business interests, which include the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. It had no role in the design, analysis or interpretation of the study, or in writing the paper.

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