A New Study Links Birth Control Pills and Breast CancerâHereâs What You Need to Know
Yesterday, news broke of a Danish study linking current hormone-releasing birth control pills and IUDs with a small but noteworthy increase in breast cancer risk. After following nearly 2 million women in Denmark for a decade, scientists suggest the hormone progestin, widely used in today’s pill packs and IUDs, may be the culprit. So how to balance the health-related benefits of birth control with the potential negatives, and what does this mean for the 62 percent of American women currently using contraception?
“This is a big deal, but it’s not an emergency,” says oncologist Dr. Marisa C. Weiss, who founded the nonprofit organization BreastCancer.org. Recalling the common belief among doctors that modern low-dose or time-released methods of contraception were considered safer than their older estrogen-filled iterations, she admits to feeling shocked to see “the study show they’re all associated with the same danger.” Essentially, any hormone combination strong enough to disrupt ovulation and hijack normal menstrual cycles to prevent pregnancy is enough to raise risk.
Weiss advocates a “stop, look, and listen” approach. “This news requires careful thinking and rethinking about the contraception method you’re using,” she says, emphasizing that finding out your unique needs is key. Age plays a major role here. For women in their 20s or 30s, five years of contraception use is credited with lower rates of ovarian cancer. Other possible health-boosting benefits include reductions in endometrial cancer, bone thinning, ovarian and breast cysts, iron deficiency, and premenstrual syndrome. If you’re on the pill, but not having sex, Weiss suggests considering a switch to on-demand options, including bringing back the diaphragm, which she calls “an old-fashioned method that works.”
Women in their 40s and those with BRCA genes may want to rethink their reliance on the pill and consider nonhormonal IUDs like Paragard, the copper-releasing device preventing egg fertilization. “You don’t get additional ovarian cancer benefits after five years of the pill, so talk with your doctor about nonhormonal options or even, for women who are finished having children, consider permanent contraception like tubal ligation,” she says of the procedure that cuts or blocks fallopian tubes to permanently prevent pregnancy. And because some nonhormonal methods of contraception may not be as instantly accessible as starter packs of pills, “Call ahead and tell the office you’re considering them,” she says.
For many, hormonal birth control pills and IUDs remain safe and effective options and the new study—which notably didn’t take into account exercise, breastfeeding, or alcohol consumption, all of which may also play a role in the breast cancer risk—underscores the importance of self-evaluation. Vigilance, including monthly self-checks, yearly appointments, and knowing your personal normal, has never been more central to women’s breast health—or well-being.