Health Care

Birth control may be putting women at risk for breast cancer

Birth control may be putting women at risk for breast cancer

Older contraceptives were known to carry a higher risk of breast cancer, but doctors had hoped that the newer lower-estrogen formulations might pose a lower risk.

The study, which followed 1.8 million Danish women for more than a decade, upends widely held assumptions about modern contraceptives for younger generations of women.

The researchers calculated that hormone contraception produced one extra case of breast cancer for every 7,690 women each year. "Contraception itself is a benefit, of course, but this study indicates it might be worth considering an alternative to hormone contraception, like the copper intrauterine device or barrier methods like condoms".

"Gynecologists just assumed that a lower dose of hormone meant a lower risk of cancer". "It's small but it's measurable, and if you add up all the millions of women taking the pill, it is a significant public health concern", Weiss added. But if they had taken hormonal contraception for more than five years, the higher risk of breast cancer persisted for at least five years after their discontinuation of hormonal birth control, the study found.

"Hormonal contraception should still be perceived as a safe and effective option for family planning", said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, who was not involved in the research.

"There's very good evidence", Hunter says, "that oral contraceptives reduce the risk of ovarian cancer".

Dr Chris Zahn, ACOG's vice president for practice activities, acknowledged a link between breast cancer risk and hormone use, but urged concerned women to consult a trusted medical provider before making changes. "The range of risks we're talking about here is much much smaller", she said.

Results were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. "But we should make an individual assessment-doctor and a woman, together-to see what is the most appropriate thing for her to use".

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"If you compare this to other risks, such as obesity and being overweight, there's more of a risk with obesity than if you take a few years of oral contraceptives", Rao told Reuters Health by phone.

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

Researchers analyzed health records of 1.8 million women, ages 15 to 49, in Denmark where a national health care system allows linking up large databases of prescription histories, cancer diagnoses and other information. During that time period, 11,517 cases of breast cancer were identified. However, it was commonly thought that the newer low-dose estrogen options significantly decreased - or even eliminated - that risk.

"Progestin-only products also increased the risk of breast cancer", Morch noted.

Morch and Gaudet noted that breast cancer is relatively uncommon in younger women, so a young woman's overall risk of breast cancer still is low, even if she's taking the pill. Researchers in Denmark found that using any type of hormonal contraceptive is linked to a 20 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Because of fewer users, the results for the patch, vaginal ring, implant and progestin shot were less clear, but the analysis didn't rule out an increased breast cancer risk for those methods.

Women who used an intrauterine device that releases only progestin also faced a 21 per cent increase in risk, compared with non-users, the study found.

For more on oral contraception, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Breast cancer strikes about 255,000 US women each year and kills about 41,000, according to the American Cancer Society. The women were followed for almost 11 years.


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