For decades there has been an ongoing debate about whether the birth control pill can increase the risk of breast cancer. Now a study from Denmark indicates that women using the birth control pill and IUDs that release sex hormones have a higher risk for breast cancer than women do not use these methods of contraception.
The researchers followed 1.8 million Danish women who were using hormonal contraceptives for more than a decade. For many years, it has been believed that the newer hormonal contraceptives are much safer than those developed 30 years ago, which have higher levels of estrogen.
The researchers observed that for every 100,000 women who used hormonal contraception, there were an additional 13 breast cancers every year.
While a link between birth control pills and breast cancer has been known for many years, this is the first study to show that even the newer formulations of birth control pills are not completely safe. The study also found that there were very few differences between the contraceptive formulations. From this study, it becomes obvious that women cannot protect themselves by opting to use intrauterine devices or implants that release hormones. Besides estrogen, the study also raises the possibility that the hormone, progesterone, which is also widely used in contraceptives, may also be associated with a risk for breast cancer.
Prior to this study, most physicians assumed that the newer contraceptives and IUDs had no risk of breast cancer as they had low doses of hormones. But this study shows that the risk of breast cancer does exist with the birth control pill.
The risk of breast cancer in this study appears to be small, but when one adds up the millions of women globally who take hormonal contraceptives, this number becomes a huge public health concern.
However, it is important to be aware that this study had limitations; it did not take into account the history of smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, breastfeeding, physical activity and even family history- all factors that also influence the risk of breast cancer.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says that it will assess these new findings but at the same time it is remiding the general public that hormonal contraceptives have been around for nearly 70 years and have been proven to be relatively safe. Further, the hormonal contraceptives are also known to lower the risk of uterine, ovarian and even colorectal cancers. Today, nearly 10-12 million women in the US regularly used hormonal contraception as a mean of birth control. The other nonhormonal options like the condom and spermicides are labor intensive and often do not work. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing in healthcare that is risk-free.