Can the Oral Contraceptive Pill Protect Against Cancer?

There has been a substantial amount of negative press linking use of the oral contraceptive pill to increased cancer rates, specifically breast and cervical cancer. However, the reality is a lot less clear and there is evidence suggesting that the pill might even protect against certain types of cancer. 

Ovarian cancer

Research suggests that women who have taken the pill are significantly less likely to develop ovarian cancer than those who have never taken it. In fact, studies have suggested that for every 5 years of pill use there is a 20% reduction in ovarian cancer risk. Furthermore, these protective effects are maintained for at least 30 years after discontinuation of pill use.

Endometrial cancer

The pill exerts a substantial protective effect against the development of endometrial cancer. The risk is thought to be reduced by between 30 and 50%, depending on the duration of use. Protection lasts for at least 20 years after cessation of treatment.

Colorectal cancer

Ever-users of the pill are approximately 15% less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those that have never taken it. Whether increased duration of use has a beneficial effect is difficult to know as the quality of data from these studies is poor.

These findings are interesting because it is estimated that as many as 140 million women worldwide take the oral contraceptive pill. Whilst a direct causative or protective effect of pill use is likely to be very difficult to ever conclusively prove, one long-term, UK-based study found that taking the pill resulted in a 12% reduction in overall cancer risk. 

To read more about a possible link between pill use and cancer risk click here.

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Sources:

  • Brynhildsen, Jan. “Combined Hormonal Contraceptives: Prescribing Patterns, Compliance, and Benefits versus Risks.” Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety, vol. 5, no. 5, Oct. 2014, pp. 201–213., doi:10.1177/2042098614548857.
  • “Does the Contraceptive Pill Increase Cancer Risk?” Cancer Research UK, 4 Mar. 2019, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/hormones-and-cancer/does-the-contraceptive-pill-increase-cancer-risk.
  • Gierisch, J. M., et al. “Oral Contraceptive Use and Risk of Breast, Cervical, Colorectal, and Endometrial Cancers: A Systematic Review.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, vol. 22, no. 11, Nov. 2013, pp. 1931–1943., doi:10.1158/1055-9965.epi-13-0298.
  • Knowlden, Hilary A. “The Pill and Cancer: a Review of the Literature. A Case of Swings and Roundabouts?” Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 15, no. 9, Sept. 1990, pp. 1016–1020., doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.1990.tb01981.x.
  • Murphy, Neil, et al. “Reproductive and Menstrual Factors and Colorectal Cancer Incidence in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study.” British Journal of Cancer, vol. 116, no. 1, 29 Nov. 2016, pp. 117–125., doi:10.1038/bjc.2016.345.
  • “Oral Contraceptives (Birth Control Pills) and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/hormones/oral-contraceptives-fact-sheet.
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