Just like any other medication, hormonal oral contraceptives carry some risks as well.
The first pills came out over 50 years ago. As experts continue to modify dosage and components, modern hormonal contraceptives use a lower dose of hormones. This also means lower side effects for women. However, the connection between hormones and cancer is continually being researched and explored.
Latest research shows that there is a link between hormonal contraceptives and breast cancer risk.
A research published in The New England Journal of Medicine states that women who take hormonal contraceptives, such as pills or injectables, have a small yet significant increase in risk for developing breast cancer, compared to those who don’t.
The study lasted for more than 10 years, and involved 1.8 million Danish women. It reveals that hormonal contraceptives lead to an extra 13 cases of breast cancer a year for every 100,000 women. To be more specific, each year there were 55 cases of breast cancer among the 100,000 women who did not use hormonal contraceptives, while those who did use had 68 cases of breast cancer.
Is the risk the same for pills and injectables?
A similar breast cancer risk with hormonal IUDs (which are not available in the Philippines) was discovered by researchers, and they couldn’t rule out a risk of other hormonal contraceptives such as the injectable and implant; however, there were no differences found among the different pills, according to researchers. The results regarding the injectables were less clear because of fewer users, but the increased risk of developing breast cancer were not ruled out. Acknowledge the fact that women who are overweight, drink excessively, or do not exercise regularly also experience this slight increase in risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, hormonal contraceptives were also found to decrease the risk of certain types of cancer.
So, what are the risks when it comes to cancer?
Breast cancer: Slight Increase in Risk
You have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer if you take or have taken pills in the past, compared to women who’ve never used them. Researchers are uncertain whether it is because of the estrogen or progesterone. Some research suggests that it might be linked to the high-dose estrogen, but other studies found that women who had the progestin-only injectables also have higher rates of breast cancer related to her natural hormones. Hormonal and reproductive history that increase the risk of breast cancer also include possible factors that may let breast tissue get exposed to high levels of hormones for longer time frames, such as:
- Beginning menstruation at an early age
- Experiencing menopause at a late age
- Later age at first pregnancy
- Not having children at all
- Women who have a family history of breast cancer are also more at risk
There are still effective contraceptives available for women in their 40s or older who believe they have a higher risk of breast cancer. They can use copper IUDs or condoms, which both do not contain any hormones.
Cervical cancer: Slight Increase in Risk
You might have a higher chance of developing cervical cancer if you take pills for five or more years—the risk increases as you use them longer. Most cases of cervical cancer are due to persistent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), a common STI. Doing the following can help reduce the risk for cervical cancer:
- Getting regular HPV screenings.
- Choosing another form of birth control, like a copper IUD.
Endometrial Cancer: Reduced Risk
Combination pills, which contain both estrogen and progesterone, can lower your chances of endometrial cancer. The risk lowers the longer you use them—in fact, it seems that the benefit lasts for at least a decade after stopping the pill.
An IUD can also lower your risk of endometrial cancer.
Reduced Risk: Ovarian Cancer
Taking combination or progestin-only pills will reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, starting within the first three to six months. The longer you take it, the lower your risk. Your risk is also lowered if you use the injectable, especially if used for more than three years.
Hormonal contraceptives also offer other benefits:
Lower dose hormonal contraceptives do not only empower women to make decisions for their reproductive health, but also:
- reduce their risk of ovarian, uterine, and colon cancer,
- can also be used to treat endometriosis,
- help with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS),
- reduce menstrual cramps or pain, and
- prevent Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID).
Doing your research and consulting your doctor is very important when choosing a contraceptive method. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered, including cancer risk and medical history. Contraceptives can have many health benefits; some may be good, others may be bad—but the most important thing is choosing what suits you best!