Birth Control Pills and Breast Cancer Risk: A HealthCentral Explainer
Women who take birth control pills may be 10 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t take the contraceptives, according to a recent study published in the Indian Journal of Cancer. The research adds to previous evidence that using oral contraceptives increases risk of breast cancer.
So what do scientists know about a potential link between birth control pills and breast cancer?
How do oral contraceptives affect breast cancer risk?
The reason birth control pills may increase breast cancer risk has to do with levels of hormones—specifically, estrogen. Evidence shows that higher levels of estrogen in the blood may increase risk of breast cancer by 20 to 30 percent. Many health experts consider this number to be relatively low because the risk of breast cancer in young women, who are most likely to be taking oral contraceptives, is low. Women who currently take or have recently used birth control pills, which contain varying levels of estrogen, have a slightly increased risk. Researchers have found that it takes about 10 years after a woman stops taking the pill for the elevated risk to lower and disappear.
Does the type of birth control pill affect breast cancer risk?
There are many different oral contraceptive options. Most of them contain the hormones estrogen and progestin, and the amounts of each depend on the specific pill. Most studies have focused on pills containing moderate levels of estrogen and progestin and have not identified variances among specific types. Some pills, including Depo Provera and one called the “mini-pill,” contain only progestin; but more research is needed to understand how breast cancer risk may be affected by these types of pills, as well as lower-dose birth control pills.
Should women stop taking oral contraceptives?
There are both risks and benefits to taking birth control pills. For many young women, the benefits outweigh the risks, especially because breast cancer risk decreases after a woman stops taking the pills. Benefits include preventing pregnancy, reducing risk of ovarian cancer, menstruation management and clearer skin. When deciding whether to start or stop taking oral contraceptives, it is important that a woman speak with her health care provider to figure out the best course of action for her own health. Women can also reduce their risk of breast cancer by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding environmental pollutants.
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