Birth control may be putting women at risk for breast cancer

Katherine Streeter for NPR

A new study is showing the link between the use of birth control to increased risk of breast cancer. As research began to link estrogen to breast cancer, the FDA took off the market any formulations that had more than 50 micrograms of estrogen, Gaudet said. But, the overall risk remains small, and past research suggests oral contraceptives protect against other types of cancer.

Breast cancer strikes about 255,000 US women each year and kills about 41,000, according to the American Cancer Society. "Contraception itself is a benefit, of course, but this study indicates it might be worth considering an alternative to hormone contraception, like the copper intrauterine device or barrier methods like condoms".

"Gynecologists just assumed that a lower dose of hormone meant a lower risk of cancer". "It's small but it's measurable, and if you add up all the millions of women taking the pill, it is a significant public health concern", Weiss added.

"They shouldn't necessarily change what they're doing", Gaudet said. In the meantime, women who are using oral contraceptives might want to speak to their doctors about use before age 35 and after age 35.

Experts noted that oral contraceptives have some benefits as well, and are associated with reductions in ovarian, endometrial and possibly colorectal cancers later in life.

Breast cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer of American women, after lung cancer. "It's important that women feel confident and comfortable with their contraceptive choice", he said.

They include smoking, obesity, starting menstruation early, having children late in life or not at all and not breastfeeding.

"There was a hope that the contemporary preparations would be associated with lower risk", he said in an interview. "We see from this data that is not the case".

Almost 10 million American women use oral contraceptives, including about 1.5 million who rely on them for reasons other than birth control. Most cases of breast cancer were seen in women using oral contraceptives in their 40s.

"It's a 20 percent increase in risk, but the absolute risk is very low", Dr. Joann Manson said. "It is a very clear picture for us, very convincing".

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Breast cancer data was collected from the Danish Cancer Registry.

One thing reiterated by every doctor Newsweek spoke to: Women who are anxious about how their contraception might increase their risk of breast cancer should speak with their health care provider.

The paper did not make any note of whether birth control impacted mortality from breast cancer, Leath noted.

Those who used them for longer periods were at even greater risk. It amounted to one extra case of breast cancer among 7,700 women using hormone contraceptives per year.

Non-oral combined hormonal contraception options, including the patch and vaginal ring, reported a slightly lowered adjusted relative risk for breast cancer for recent and current users (0.85, 95% CI 0.21-3.41 and 0.97, 95% CI 0.62-1.50; respectively).

A 20 per cent increase in relative risk may be small in absolute terms, but the calculation changes with age. Any woman's risk of breast cancer goes up as she gets older. Don't forget there is relative risk of death in pregnancy, too. "That is not a huge risk increase", she told NBC News.

Duration of use also contributed to associated breast cancer risk. About 40,000 women died of breast cancer in 2017.

In Denmark, older women who have completed their families are most likely to use IUDs, including those containing hormones, and they are already more likely to develop breast cancer because of their age, Mørch said.

IUDs infused with hormones also appear to pose a risk, Morch said, so "so there's a lot of things to take into account when deciding what type of contraception to use".

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