Analysis: Birth Control Pills Protect Against Cancer, Too

After a Danish study last week reported finding more breast cancer cases among women who use hormone-based birth control methods, many women were left wondering: How significant is the risk, and what are the alternatives? The answer will be different for each woman and will depend on such factors as her age and general healthand her other risks for breast cancer. But many doctors who prescribe contraceptives say there’s no cause for alarm — and no one should throw away her pills and risk an unwanted pregnancy. The increased breast cancer risk identified among hormone users in the study was small. For the vast majority of women in their 20s and 30s, breast cancer is rare to begin with, so this modest increase would not amount to many additional cases. And while birth control pills may slightly raise the odds of breast cancer — and have been associated with increases in cervical cancer, as well — the contraceptive’s relationship with cancer is complex. Oral contraceptives appear to reduce the incidence of some less common reproductive cancers, like endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer, which is often detected at an advanced stage, when it is hard to treat. There is some evidence that birth control pills may also reduce the odds of colorectal cancer.

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