Medical

Birth control may be putting women at risk for breast cancer

Birth control may be putting women at risk for breast cancer

Though the older oral contraceptives were known to increase the risk of breast cancer, many doctors and patients had assumed the newer generation of pills on the market today were safer.

A new study is showing the link between the use of birth control to increased risk of breast cancer. Experts who reviewed the research say women should balance the news against known benefits of the pill - including lowering the risk of other cancers.

Results were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The bottom line is that before starting or continuing to take hormonal contraceptives - or any medications - it's important to speak with your doctor about any potential risks and benefits, and make an informed decision from there.

Almost 10 million American women use oral contraceptives, including about 1.5 million who rely on them for reasons other than birth control.

Specifically, the study found that it may be the hormone progestin - a key component of many of today's hormonal contraceptives - that is behind the breast cancer risk.

That may sound scary.

The study was limited, the authors said, because they could not take into account factors like physical activity, breast feeding and alcohol consumption, which may also influence breast cancer risk. But the odds rose among women who used hormonal contraception for more than 10 years, the study found. "As with any medical intervention, hormonal contraception is associated with specific health risks".

Officials with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that they would carefully evaluate the new findings, but emphasized that hormonal contraceptives are for many women "among the most safe, effective and accessible options available". Among those who used hormones for five years, an increased breast cancer risk persisted even after they discontinued use, Mørch said.




The findings of alink between hormonal contraception and breast cancer is not new; studies going back decades have suggested that the hormones in birth control could raise the risk of breast cancer. The findings indicate that the hormone progestin is adding to breast cancer risk; some of the contraceptive pills and numerous IUDs included only progestin, Mørch said. However, using hormonal contraception for 10 years was linked with a 40 percent increase in the risk of breast cancer, compared with those who had never used hormonal contraception.

What those numbers mean in terms of actual women getting breast cancer who otherwise may not have is a bit less striking: there was about one extra breast cancer case diagnosed for every 7690 women who used hormonal contraception for a year. According to an editorial that accompanied the study in NEJM, birth control may actually be protective against cancer on the whole despite this increased risk for one type. Epidemiologist Lina Morch headed the study.

NEIGHMOND: Hormonal contraception releases estrogen, progestin or a combination of both to suppress ovulation and prevent pregnancy.

Digging further, the researchers found no differences among types of birth control pills.

MIA GAUDET: Including the patch, the ring, the implant, as well as IUD.

The study builds on earlier findings linking hormonal birth control and breast cancer, but the new study focused on newer forms of birth control. The researchers used nationwide registries to collect information about prescriptions that were filled for hormonal contraception, as well as diagnoses of breast cancer. However, it was commonly thought that the newer low-dose estrogen options significantly decreased - or even eliminated - that risk.

DAVID HUNTER: Unfortunately, the increase of 20 percent appears to apply to the most recent formulations just like it did in the '70s, '80s and '90s.

MORCH: So it has to be balanced - the pros and cons of these contraceptives.


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