Vitality

Endometrial Cancer Risk Drops With Use Of The Contraceptive Pill, But This Form Of Birth Control Still Isn't For Everyone

the pill
New findings can help women make more informed decisions on whether the pill is right for them. Sarah C CC BY-ND 2.0

A new study has presented strong evidence suggesting long-term use of the birth control pill can help reduce a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer. While the news is exciting for those already taking the pill, experts urge those still debating whether they should use it to take all factors into consideration before making their decision.

Although previous research has found the birth control pill may reduce a woman’s chance of developing uterine cancer, the extent to which it prevents it from developing hasn’t been fully explored until now. According to the new study, published in The Lancet Oncology, for every five years a woman takes the pill, her chances of developing uterine cancer decrease by about 25 percent.

To reach this conclusion, the team looked at 36 case studies involving 27,276 women. In doing so, the collaborative team calculated that women who had taken the pill for 10 years had a 1.3 percent chance of developing uterine cancer in their lifetime. For women who had never taken the pill, lifetime risk of developing uterine cancer rose to 2.3 percent, The Telegraph reported. Based on these figures, the team estimated that the birth control pill prevented around 200,000 cases of womb cancer in the Western world over the past decade alone.

"People used to worry that the pill might cause cancer, but in the long-term, the pill reduces the risk of getting cancer," Professor Valerie Beral, director of the cancer epidemiology unit at Oxford University, told Sky News.

Uterine cancer, also known as endometrial or womb cancer, is the cancer of the inner lining of the womb. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the most common cancer of the female reproductive organs, affecting nearly 55,000 women in the U.S. each year. The cancer is extremely rare in women under the age of 45, and 75 percent of cases are found in women aged 55 and older.

The birth control pill is the most popular form of birth control in the United States. It works by releasing the hormones progestin, which mimics progesterone, and estrogen into the body, which prevents ovulation and thus makes it highly unlikely a woman will get pregnant. Although it is not exactly clear how the pill decreases risk of developing womb cancer, the researchers believe it is linked to the drug’s dose of estrogen.

“We know that factors that reduce the number of ovulations during a woman’s lifetime are associated with a reduced risk of both uterine and ovarian cancers,” Dr. Nick Wentzensen, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, who wrote a commentary on the study, told Medical Daily in an email.These factors include having more children, breastfeeding, and experiencing your first period at a later age.

The study revealed that this preventive effect could last up to 30 years after women stop taking the pill, and that women who took the pill for just five years of their lives still had lower chances of developing uterine cancer — when compared to women who had never taken the medication.

Though the results are exciting, experts still advise women to consider the risks they face before committing to the pill. One of the most common risks associated with long-term use of oral contraceptives is developing blood clots. A study released earlier this year found that women taking older forms of the birth control pill were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop blood clots than women who had never taken the pill. For women on newer forms of oral birth control, this risk is still nearly double. Meanwhile, a separate study found that taking the pill can also triple the chances of developing chronic gastrointestinal diseases in women with a genetic predisposition.

The study stands as confirmation of past research linking oral contraceptives to cancer prevention and shows that despite the risks associated with long-term oral contraceptive use, there are also benefits.  

“The conclusion of that report was that there is a net benefit of oral contraceptive use,” Wentzensen wrote. “Individual factors need to be considered when contemplating taking oral contraceptives for cancer prevention. For example, the combination of smoking and oral contraceptive use increases the risk of venous thrombosis.”

Source: Collaborative Group on Epidemiological Studies on Endometrial Cancer. Endometrial cancer and oral contraceptives: an individual participant meta-analysis of 27 276 women with endometrial cancer from 36 epidemiological studies. The Lancet Oncology. 2015.

 

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