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Do Birth Control Pills Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer?

Do birth control pills increase the risk of developing breast cancer? This question has been debated for years, with various studies concluding yes, no, and maybe. Yesterday a new study was published in Cancer Research by Elisabeth Beaber which you will surely hear quoted in the news.

Her findings were as follows: recent users of the pill, longer-term users, users of higher dose formulations, users of triphasic style pills (pills that change their dose three times in one cycle), and users of certain brands containing particular types of progesterone had a greater risk of developing breast cancer. The good news was that low dose pills (containing less than or equal to 20 mcg of estrogen) and pills containing other types of progesterone had no increase in breast cancer risks.

The particular pills most associated with breast cancer are ones that are extremely high dose and are virtually never prescribed for contraception. The numbers of people on those formations in her study were minimal, making any conclusions difficult to interpret.

Low dose, monophasic pills (pill packs that are the same dose throughout, along with a placebo at the end of the pack) appear to be the best choice. Most of my patients are already on these pills – they are equally effective for contraception, and the lower dose has meant fewer unpleasant side effects such as breast tenderness and bloating. If you are not certain what dose your pill is, and whether it falls into this preferential category, you should check with your gynecologist.

This is not a call for all women to stop the pill; you should discuss with your doctor the risks and benefits of the pill, especially as it pertains to your particular health history. There are many health benefits of the pill, including a decreased risk of ovarian and endometrial (uterine) cancers. As a very good article in The Atlantic notes, “Breast cancer is already really rare—a woman’s risk of developing it at age 40 is only about 1.5 percent, and it’s only 2.38 percent at age 50. Increasing either of those numbers by even a factor of three makes a difference, but not much of one. Even the study’s author, Elisabeth Beaber, a staff scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said the findings aren’t enough to suggest you should change your prescription if you do happen to be taking one of these high-dose pills.” Read more here:

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