The Pill and breast cancer risk
Since the early 1960s, oral contraceptives have become the most popular and one of the most effective forms of contraception used in the UK. But an association between oestrogen and an increased risk of breast cancer has led to a continuing debate about the role contraceptive pills may play in developing breast cancer.
For most women, especially young women, experts say the benefits of oral contraceptives far outweigh the risks. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about the controversy.
Does taking birth control pills increase my risk of developing breast cancer?
Cancer Research UK says combined knowledge from studies carried out around the world into oral contraceptives show that women using the pill have a slight but significant increase in breast cancer risk.
However, the risk begins to decrease once a woman stops taking the pill. 10 years after stopping using the Pill, the risk of developing breast cancer is no higher than in women who haven’t taken the Pill.
My family has a history of breast cancer. Should I take oral contraceptives?
Women with a family history of breast cancer may feel that this increased risk, no matter how small it is, is not worth taking.
Doctors don't believe that using the Pill changes the level of the risk for women with close relatives who've had breast cancer. However, Cancer Research UK says there is not enough evidence to say for sure how pill use might affect breast cancer risk in these cases.
Women with their own history of breast problems, even benign lumps, may also want to be cautious when discussing contraceptive options with their doctor or family planning clinic.
Oestrogen in the combined pill is the ingredient thought to be responsible for the increased risk. Most women in the UK are usually offered the low oestrogen version of the combined pill.
Does the risk of breast cancer associated with oral contraceptives vary by age?
In common with many other cancers, the risk of developing breast cancer increases as a woman gets older.
Breast cancer is rare in younger women and the age groups most often using the pill are women in their late teens, 20s and early 30s.
One study of more than 100,000 women suggested that the increased breast cancer risk associated with contraceptive pills is highest among women over age 45. The study found that the risk of breast cancer was greatest among women aged 45 and over who were still using the Pill. This group of women was nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to get breast cancer as women who had never used the Pill.
The charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer reminds women that taking the pill is a personal choice and to make sure they talk to their GP about questions and concerns.
Do contraceptive pills affect the risk of any other cancers?
There's evidence the Pill can protect against cancer of the ovary, cancer of the womb, cancer of the colon, and bowel cancer. Some research also suggests there may be a link between the combined pill and a very rare form of liver cancer, however the research is inconclusive.
There’s an increased risk of cervical cancer. Cancer Research UK says there may be other reasons for the increased risk in this case: women who use oral contraceptives are statistically more likely to be sexually active. Taking the Pill may also mean barrier contraception, such as condoms, are not used which increases the risk of HPV, which is a cervical cancer risk factor.