Do Birth Control Pills Cause Cancer In Women?

  • 6 mins read
  • Health Conditions
  • Written by: Dr. Jatin Bhide

Birth control pills or oral contraceptives are one of the most common methods of preventing unwanted pregnancies across the globe. Although hormonal birth control is considered safe and reliable, there have been a few speculations regarding its impact on increasing the risk of cervical or breast cancer. So, can pills cause cancer? Read on to know.

What are oral contraceptive pills?

Oral contraceptives (OCPs), commonly called as birth control pills, are medicines that can be taken by women as prescribed by their doctor to avoid pregnancy. These pills contain synthetic forms of natural female hormones namely estrogen and progesterone.

Here’s how they act:

  • They do not allow the egg to be formed in a woman’s ovaries.
  • They cause the thinning of the inner lining of the uterus so that the embryo (an unborn baby in its early phase of development) fails to attach itself to the uterine wall.
  • They inhibit the entry of sperms into the cervix by hardening the cervical mucus.

The OCPs are of two types, primarily:

  • Combination birth control pill that contains both estrogen and progestin (the man-made form of progesterone)
  • Mini pill that contains progestin exclusively

Can oral contraceptive pills increase the risk of cancer?

If you are thinking is it safe to be on birth control for a long time, here is what you should know.

According to an analysis, women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years were at a significantly higher risk of developing invasive cervical cancer when compared to those who have not used them at all. The analysis also indicated that after a period of ten years of discontinuing OCPs use, the risk of cervical cancer became equal to those who have not been on OCPs at all.

Around 225 studies conducted for over three decades were screened to understand the association between cervical cancer and OCPs use. Out of which, only 19 studies were selected and analyzed for in-depth study. It was concluded that the increased risk of cervical cancer from the use of OCPs cannot be denied.

Similarly, OCPs have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer as well. Hormones can alter the way the cells of a particular organ (like the breast) divide and differentiate. This explains how OCPs increase the risk of only specific cancers.

Oral contraceptives and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection

Studies have shown that women who have HPV infection and are using oral contraceptives are at a very high risk of cervical cancer. According to the research, women with   Human Papilloma   Virus   (HPV) infection  are under a three-times more risk of cervical cancer if they have been on OCPs for more than 5 years. The risk can increase four-fold for those women who have been using OCPs for more than a decade. It would not be right to think that every woman with HPV infection is at risk of developing cervical cancer. Persistent HPV infection with long-term OCPs use, however, can increase the chances of cervical cancer.

What could be the possible side effects of oral contraceptive pills?

Like every other drug, birth control pills too have a couple of side effects that vary from mild to moderate, depending upon other factors such as the duration of use and the type of pill being used. The most common side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Tenderness of breasts
  • Spotting between periods
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Increased vaginal discharge

The side effects tend to resolve by themselves after a few months of use. If the problems persist, you should discuss them with your doctor. A switch in the type of pills or birth control method could be their most probable recommendation.

Which birth control method has minimum side effects?

You can always consider non-hormonal birth control methods if you want to minimize side effects. Always consult your doctor so that you can choose the method that works best for you.

Let the barriers guard

Male and female condoms act as barriers and avoid unexpected pregnancies when used properly. While male condoms are more effective, female condoms can also be brought into use.

Go natural through fertility awareness

Keeping a track of your menstrual cycle is worth your time and effort! It is the safest as there are no hormones involved. Besides, there are a variety of applications that can remind you, your most fertile days.

Non-Hormonal Intrauterine Device

Copper IUDs do not allow the embryo to fix the wall of the uterus, thereby preventing pregnancy. As they are not hormonal, the chances for side effects are minimal.

Other non-hormonal birth control methods like cervical caps or diaphragms may have some side effects due to the irritation caused by spermicide.

Talk with the partner

The most important thing in any relationship is that both partners should be on the same page. Birth control is also a two-way street and the choice of method should be based on the comfort and safety of both partners, not just the woman.

Summary

With the introduction of oral contraceptives, birth control has become simpler and effective. But can pills cause cancer is a matter of concern that has been raising its head. Recent studies indicate that prolonged use of OCPs can increase the risk of cervical cancer. Hence, it is recommended to consult your doctor and discuss non-hormonal alternatives such as condoms or copper intra-uterine devices when it comes to choosing a birth control method that is safest and serves you the best.

 

  • References

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