Using birth control is typically a no-brainer if you want to prevent an unintended pregnancy. What if, however, using the same birth control increased your risk of breast cancer?
A small but significant increase in the risk of breast cancer is observed in women who take hormonal birth control pills or use hormonal IUDs over time, according to research reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The study, which tracked 1.8 million Danish women for more than ten years, discovered that hormonal birth control resulted in an additional 13 cases of breast cancer annually for every 100,000 women. For example, among the 100,000 women who did not use hormonal birth control, there were 55 cases of breast cancer each year; among those who did, there were 68 cases.
The study found no significant differences between the hormonal methods used by the women; both progestin-only and combined oral contraceptives carried a higher risk of miscarriage. The same applies to whether a woman used a hormonal IUD or a pill. According to the study, a woman’s risk increased as she continued to use hormonal birth control. Therefore, hormones are undoubtedly to blame for the elevated risk, but the precise mechanisms are still unknown.
But before you freak out, know this: Your doctor is already aware of the birth control and breast cancer connection. According to Jack Jacoub, M.D., a medical oncologist and the medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, there is evidence linking continued hormonal contraceptive use and breast cancer. The use of birth control pills, for instance, was linked to a “marginally significant higher risk” of breast cancer, according to a large-scale study conducted in 2010.
However, more estrogen was present in earlier hormonal birth control than it is now, and many medical professionals believe the risk has decreased with the more recent versions. However, Jacoub asserts that “we’ve known this for a long time.”
Women “definitely shouldn’t freak out about this,” according to Jacoub, but it’s still a good idea to be aware of the risks. He advises trying to reduce how long you use hormonal birth control or, at the very least, trying to switch to some non-hormonal methods after you’ve been on a hormonal method for years because using it for a long time increases your risk. Jacoub advises speaking with your doctor about possibly switching to a non-hormonal birth control method if you have a strong family history of breast cancer. So you might switch from a hormonal IUD to the copper version, for instance. (And having condoms on hand is always a good idea; the Women’s Health Boutique ships these LELO Hex condoms in covert packaging.)
But ultimately, you shouldn’t worry about it. Just be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of any birth control method you choose to use. According to Jacoub, a variety of factors affect the development of breast cancer, and using hormonal birth control by itself is unlikely to increase your risk of getting the disease.