Birth control pills may help decrease the risk of ovarian cancer in women but increase the risk for breast cancer.
A study in the British Journal of Cancer showed for every 100,000 women on the pill for 10 years, there are 50 extra cases of breast cancer and 12 fewer cases of ovarian cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is therefore almost halved for users.
Lori Wangberg, a health educator and HIV counselor at Central Michigan University Health Services, said there has been research over the past several decades on oral contraceptive use and cancer risk.
“While research has found that oral contraceptive use might decrease the risk of ovarian cancer, research supports a strong link between oral contraceptive use and an increase in breast cancer risk,” she said. “Certain types of cancer rely upon higher levels of hormones to activate tumor growth and development.”
The question many women now face is whether to risk not developing ovarian cancer, but in turn possibly be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Wangberg said it depends on the woman’s family history.
“If there is a strong family history of breast cancer or strong family history of ovarian cancer, it is critical to have that discussion with their healthcare provider, and provide honest and accurate information at the appointment,” she said.
Women also need to be aware that oral contraceptives do not offer protection against sexually-transmitted infections, Wangberg said. The HPV virus, which is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, is linked to cervical cancer.
She said condoms can be helpful in reducing the risk, but it is important to remember that HPV can still be transmitted through the areas of the skin the condom does not cover.
Troy junior Sienna Violett said she knows the risks of taking the pill, but still takes it religiously.
“I’m not worried about getting or not getting cancer from the pill because I think it’s all in your genetics,” she said. “If I am going to get cancer it will just happen and I don’t think the pill will play that big of a role.”
Violett said she takes the pill every day at 8 p.m. and has an alarm set on her phone as a reminder.
“I’ve been taking the pill for two years, but I don’t take it to reduce my cancer risk,” she said. “It is more for other health reasons and I think it’s more effective by taking it at the same time every day.”
Wangberg said the risks of taking the pill include increased blood pressure, heart disease and an increased risk for blood clots.
The European Prospective Investigation of Cancer also showed evidence that having a baby reduces the risk of ovarian cancer.
Wangberg said based on some research studies, the less active the ovaries are (non-ovulation), in theory, the risk goes down.
The most common signs of ovarian cancer are bloating in the lower belly and pelvic area, pelvic pain or discomfort, nausea, indigestion and an increase in size of the abdominal area, Wangberg said.
While these symptoms are typical of ovarian cancer, she said it is important to remember these symptoms can be associated with other illnesses.