While the birth control pill is one of the most effective forms of birth control, there is an association between estrogen exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Does Use of the Birth Control Pill Increase the Risk of Developing Breast Cancer?
Most prescribed birth control pills contain synthetic versions of the natural female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Prolonged estrogen exposure is considered to be one of the highest risk factors for developing breast cancer.
While early birth control pills contained much higher levels of hormones and posed a higher risk, many experts suggest that the benefits of today’s low-dose pills outweigh the risks.
The bottom line: Studies indicate that the use of the birth control pill increases the risk of developing breast cancer. But the reported increases vary significantly by study, from say 7% to 60%, indicating that there are likely compounding risk factors at play. For instance, does the user eat healthily, exercise, drink alcohol, smoke, etc?
Does the Risk of Breast Cancer Vary with the Duration of Use of the Pill?
The risk of breast cancer increases with duration of birth control pill use, as prolonged exposure to estrogen increases a woman’s risk. However, risk declines after cessation of the pill, with no increased risk evident 10 years after use.
Does the Risk from Birth Control Pill Use Vary by Age?
Breast cancer risk increases with age, so younger women are at lower risk of breast cancer than older women. Taking the pill while young and at low risk for breast cancer is considered relatively safe.
While studies indicate that women aged 45 and over who use the pill are nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to develop cancer, it may be due to duration of use, the fact that pills created decades earlier contained higher levels of hormones and the presence of other compounding lifestyle factors.
Is it Safe to Use Birth Control Pills with a Cancer Diagnosis?
The World Health Organization suggests that women with breast cancer or who have abnormal breast tissue findings or a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer avoid all forms of birth control that use hormones, including the birth control pill, patch, ring (Mirena), injections (Depo-Provera), and implants, as well as progestin-only pills.
Is it Safe to Use Birth Control Pills with a Family History?
For anyone with a family history or a genetic mutation linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, like a BRCA1 mutation, it is advisable to choose alternatives to hormonal birth control.
Here are Some Alternatives to Consider:
- Many doctors recommend using barrier methods of birth control: condoms or a diaphragm with spermicide.
- Another option is a non-hormonal intrauterine device (IUD) such as ParaGard, made of copper. (It is best to avoid IUDs that use hormones, like Mirena.) Highly effective for birth control, ParaGard doesn’t carry the risk of added hormones and works for 10 years after uterine insertion. It can also be removed if a woman wants to become pregnant. However, some women experience an inflammatory reaction to copper and foreign materials.
- Of course some women choose abstinence, especially during their fertile time of the month, closely tracking their ovulation cycles and symptoms on a calendar.
- For women who are certain they do not want to become pregnant in the future, permanent birth control is an option. For women, surgery closes the fallopian tubes and stops eggs from entering the uterus. For men, vasectomy cuts and seals the tubes that carry sperm in the semen.
Does Birth Control Pill Use Impact the Risk of Any Other Cancers?
- Cervical cancer: A Lancet study found a 10% increased risk with less than 5 years of use, a 60% increased risk with 5 to 9 years of use, and doubling of risk with 10 or more years of use.
- Endometrial cancer: Risk is reduced by at least 30%, with a greater risk reduction the longer the pill is used.
- Ovarian cancer: Risk is reduced by as much as 30%-50% with at least three years use.
- Colorectal cancer: Risk is reduced 15% to 20%.