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Home / Contraception / The Link Between Contraception and Cancer

The Link Between Contraception and Cancer

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The link between contraception and cancer is not unknown. In fact, the Oxford Academic found that one of the main reasons for women not taking hormonal contraception was the possible increase of cancer risk, primarily breast cancer. Despite this, the combined pill remains the most popular form of contraception in the UK. Here, we look into the facts and figures surrounding hormonal contraception and the risk of certain types of cancer.

The Key Points: Contraception and Cancer Risk

  • The risk of breast cancer and cervical cancer whilst taking hormonal contraception is slight but present.
  • Figures show a decrease in the risk of certain cancers including endometrial, womb, ovarian, bowel and liver.
  • The hormones are the reason behind the increased and decreased risks of certain cancers, although more studies are required to establish exactly WHY this is.

Other takeways

Studies can vary in regards to the figures related to developing cancer from taking hormonal contraceptives. Whilst some class the risk as between 40-50% higher in terms of breast cancer, one study does calculate this to around 1% of women who are diagnosed with cancer in relation to their contraceptive use.

What we can agree on is that there is a slight risk of developing cancer through contraception, however, the benefits tend to outweigh the negatives. For example, endometrial, womb and ovarian cancer risks are all lessened, as well as its primary use of stopping pregnancy. Other additional benefits include regulating periods, reducing PMS and cramping and improving skin.

There needs to be a continual research into the link of certain contraception to certain cancers, but it is important to remember that the benefits often vastly outweigh the negative. What's more, this already slim figure does decline between 5-10 years after stopping.

Which cancers are linked to contraception?

Hormonal contraception works by altering the menstrual cycle to prevent pregnancy. Whilst this has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, it can also reduce the risk of other types of cancer. This is not only whilst taking the contraception, but after you have stopped.

Increased risk
Breast cancer Cervical cancer
Decreased risk
Endometrial cancer Ovarian cancer Womb cancer Bowel cancer Liver cancer

There is a larger amount of research based on the combined pill in comparison to the progestogen-only pill, as scientists believe that it is the oestrogen present in combined pills that is causing cancer cells. Below, we look into the studies and figures related to these cancers and whether your health is compromised when taking hormonal contraception.

Contraception and breast cancer

One negative link is the connection between breast cancer and the pill as it is thought that the oestrogen and/or progesterone present can stimulate breast cancer cells to grow, whether this is synthetic or the real hormone. We mention a study below under 'The Media' relating to the increased breast cancer risk of 45-50%, contradicting the above figures.

"Whilst there is an increased risk, Cancer Research UK anticipates that only 1% of breast cancers diagnosed in women are due to contraceptives."

Whilst this seems like a huge gamble with your health, these surveys don't take into account the type of pill (American studies include stronger hormone pills, which have been banned in the UK), family history, your body mass index (BMI) and how many children you have had. All these factors can increase your risk of breast cancer. It is also important to know that breast cancer develops through a range of risk factors including obesity, alcohol, and smoking, rather than one direct cause.

To conclude, this 50% risk increase is in comparison to women who haven't used the pill for over a year or have never used a combined hormonal contraceptive at all. This is classed as a "relative risk", which concludes as a "small increase in the risk of developing breast cancer" making the link between contraception and breast cancer not as significant as we think. What's more, the increased risk diminishes after 10 years after you stop.

Contraception and cervical cancer

Depending on how long you take the combined pill can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. This timeframe is 5 years or more, however, this does reduce if you stop taking it. By the first 10 years without the combined pill, your risk factor has returned to the level of a woman who hasn't taken the contraceptive.

The risk after a prolonged amount of time is approximately double that of women who have never used the combined pill. Like breast cancer, this seems incredibly high, but other factors such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) and smoking are far more influential. In fact, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer in the UK.

Contraception and ovarian, endometrial and bowel cancer

A report in The Telegraph based on a study from the University of Aberdeen suggests that the contraceptive pill can lessen the risk and prevent ovarian, endometrial and bowel cancers by up to 35 years.

  • Lowered cases of bowel cancer by 19%
  • Lowered cases of endometrial cancer by 34%
  • Lowered cases of ovarian cancer by 33%

Studies: The Facts and Figures

There has always been a link between contraception and breast cancer, however, the risk is decidedly small, especially in comparison to the benefits. In fact, the details surrounding the pill reducing certain types of cancer is often overlooked. Despite the small risk, there is still one and we should be fully informed before choosing our preferred form of contraception.

The New England Journal of Medicine

The New England Journal of Medicine completed one of the top studies in this area. It included approximately 1.8 million women studied over the timespan of over 10 years. As reported by The Guardian, these women based in Denmark had a higher risk of breast cancer after they had taken a hormonal contraceptive for over a decade. This included hormonal contraception like the mini pill and the combined pill. The study also showed an increased risk of breast cancer in women over the age of 40.

Screenshot Image of The Guardian article about all forms of hormonal contraception carry breast cancer risk

The researchers found that some women were at a 20% higher risk of developing breast cancer than women having not recently took a contraceptive, or were on a contraceptive. This risk also increases as time goes on.

The Oxford Academic

This study looks at the positive effects combined oral contraceptives have. For example, the risk of ovarian cancers can reduce significantly over time (around 20% for every 5 years). The statistics of endometrial cancer is, even more, promising with a reduction of 50%. This study has suggested that these benefits tend to outweigh the negatives, especially the smaller percentage of women who have an increase in the risk of getting breast cancer or liver cancer.

US National Institutes of Health

A study from the US National Library of Medicine looking into the lifetime cancer risk linked to combined oral contraceptives have found that they not only have no correlation with developing certain cancers in the long-term. In fact, the contraception can actually reduce the risks of certain cancers, even years after stopping. This includes endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and colorectal cancer.

The Media

Certain news stories claim that the pill (the UK's most popular form of contraceptive with millions of users) can increase the risk of breast cancer by 45-50%. Sources including the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have linked these findings to a US Study.

It's important to note that in this study included approximately 1,000 women who had already been diagnosed with breast cancer and they were surveyed in terms of their contraceptive use. This means that other contributing factors may not have been recorded. For example, the rates of breast cancer in terms of other cancers are higher than average. Even at what is deemed a "fertile age", the risk of developing breast cancer is classed as small. This, therefore, makes the increase in risk quite proportional. In fact, The Times has likened these findings to the equivalent of "drinking a large glass of wine a day". This study contained contraceptive pills that contain a higher volume of synthetic hormones; these have all been banned in the UK.

What should I do next?

Whilst studies have indeed clarified that hormonal contraception increases the risk of certain cancers (including cervical and breast cancer), this increase is very slim. In fact, the other factors such as family history, smoking, and drinking alcohol excessively is still the leading risk factors when it comes to a whole range of cancers. For example, the combined contraceptive only accounts for approximately 1% of breast cancers.

If you are at all concerned with the risks associated with the pill, mini pill or other hormonal contraceptives, do not hesitate to visit your doctor. Contraception in the UK is widely available and covers a broad spectrum including the hormone levels, how it is administered and what it contains.