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Birth control linked to 20% higher risk of breast cancer
07 December 2017, 12:37 | Melissa Porter
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Katherine Streeter for NPR
Katherine Streeter for NPR
It's always been known that hormonal contraception, like any medicine, carries some risks.
A new study is showing the link between the use of birth control to increased risk of breast cancer. The link with cancer risk exists not only for older generations of hormonal contraceptives but also for the products that many women use today, according to a paper published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Of course, finding a safe and effective form of birth control is more than just a personal concern.
For now, Morch said, even with the newer pharmaceuticals, women whose families have a strong history of breast cancer or heart disease may want to consider using other methods of birth control, such as employing condoms or spermicidal devices. Researchers using the approach often lose contact with some patients, and conducting such studies often cost "a fortune", Morch said. That information was compared to those who were diagnosed with breast cancer, which showed there was a 20 percent increase in risk of breast cancer for those taking contraceptives. And the longer the women used hormonal methods, she says, the higher their risk.
These results sound scary at first.
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. But the odds rose among women who used hormonal contraception for more than 10 years, the study found.
Almost 10 million American women use oral contraceptives, including about 1.5 million who rely on them for reasons other than birth control.
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. Relative to the increased risk posed by other environmental factors, like smoking for lung cancer-that's about a 10 times greater risk-and having a human papillomavirus infection for cervical cancer-that may increase risk about 50 or 60 times-38 percent really isn't that much.
The increase in breast cancer cases associated with hormones was also small because young women are at low risk to begin with. "So, many calculations suggest that the use of oral contraceptives actually prevents more cancers than it causes". "But the same elevated risk is there". Still, the data show that the search for birth control drugs that don't increase breast cancer risk must continue, he said. It turns out they didn't, according to a massive new study. But researchers in Denmark looked at 1.8 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 to see if new lower-dosed formulations are still risky. Epidemiologist Lina Morch headed the study.
MIA GAUDET: Including the patch, the ring, the implant, as well as IUD. The findings indicate that the hormone progestin is adding to breast cancer risk; some of the contraceptive pills and numerous IUDs included only progestin, Mørch said.
However, the absolute risk for developing breast cancer for most women is extremely low. However, it was commonly thought that the newer low-dose estrogen options significantly decreased - or even eliminated - that risk. "But we should make an individual assessment-doctor and a woman, together-to see what is the most appropriate thing for her to use".
Overall, there was one extra case of breast cancer for every 7,600 women using hormonal contraception for a year. But he suggested doctors take time to discuss the pros and cons of different types of contraception with their patients, and that they be frank about the potential risks, suggesting women reassess hormone use as they age.
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