The hormonal birth control options available today have come a long way from the formulation that hit the market back in 1960. But according to a new study, even the contraceptives with lower dosages of estrogen still come with a slightly increased chance of breast cancer.
The research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that people using hormonal birth control methods — including the ring, intrauterine devices and the pill — experienced a 20 percent increase in the relative risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who did not use contraceptives containing hormones.
The data for the study was collected from 1.8 million Danish women for more than a decade. Out of those women, for every 100,000 participants, the use of hormonal birth control caused an additional 13 cases of breast cancer each year. Another way of looking at that is that there would be one additional case of breast cancer each year among 7,700 people who use hormonal contraceptives.
The idea that there is a link between hormonal contraceptive use and breast cancer is not new. However, it was commonly thought that the newer low-dose estrogen options significantly decreased — or even eliminated — that risk. Given that this study out of Denmark is the first to look at the potential risks associated with the current versions of birth control pills and devices, the fact that a correlation between hormonal contraceptive users and breast cancer constitutes a major medical finding.
Specifically, the study found that it might be the hormone progestin — a key component of many of today’s hormonal contraceptives — that is behind the breast cancer risk.
“This is an important study because we had no idea how the modern day pills compared to the old-fashioned pills in terms of breast cancer risk, and we didn’t know anything about IUDs,” Dr. Marisa Weiss, an oncologist who founded the website BreastCancer.org and was not involved in the study told The New York Times. “Gynecologists just assumed that a lower dose of hormone meant a lower risk of cancer. But the same elevated risk is there.”
Weiss added that although the increased risk is small, it is measurable, and when you consider the number of people taking hormonal birth control (approximately 140 million people worldwide, including about 16 million in the United States) it amounts to a “significant public health concern.”
But before you pull an Ian Somerhalder and flush those pills, there are other things to consider.
First, the study didn’t factor in other variables like diet, physical activity, breastfeeding or alcohol consumption, which could also have an impact on developing breast cancer.
There are also numerous potential health benefits of hormonal contraceptives beyond preventing pregnancy, including decreasing the risk of endometrial, ovarian and colorectal cancers, as well as helping with menstrual cycle regularity, migraines and acne.
And the importance of allowing women to take control of their fertility and reproduction and decide if, how and when to have a baby cannot be overlooked.
Not only that, but there are plenty of nonhormonal birth control options to consider, like the nonhormonal IUD, diaphragm and condoms — and let’s not forget vasectomies.
The bottom line is that before starting or continuing to take hormonal contraceptives — or any medications — it’s important to speak with your doctor about any potential risks and benefits and make an informed decision from there.
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