Oral Contraceptives and Uterine Cancer Risk
You may be surprised to learn that the Pill can reduce the risk of uterine cancer, but it's all about controlling hormones.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Taking a tiny oral contraceptive pill on a regular basis could reduce your risk of uterine cancer.
"Oral contraceptives are fantastic. They decrease the risk of uterine cancer by 50 percent and decrease the risk of ovarian cancer by 50 percent," says Karen Lu, MD, a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. And that decreased risk may last for many years after you stop taking oral contraceptives.
In 2007, data from a 36-year study of close to 46,000 women — equally divided between women who used oral contraceptives and women who didn't — demonstrated the protective effect of combined oral contraceptives against uterine cancer. Combined oral contraceptives are those that contain more than one hormone, usually a mix of progesterone (or the synthetic progestin) and estrogen.
The results of this study showed that women who were currently using oral contraceptives, as well as those who had used them in the past, had a decreased risk of uterine cancer.
Uterine Cancer Prevention: Controlling the Hormones
Oral contraceptives are designed to prevent pregnancy by chemically tricking your body into thinking it is already pregnant. This means that the amount of natural estrogen circulating through your body is reduced significantly while you are taking the oral contraceptives. The presence of estrogen has been linked to an increased risk of uterine cancer.
Most oral contraceptives contain progestin, a hormone that counters the effect of estrogen on the lining of the uterus and is correlated with reduced uterine cancer risk. Different birth control pills have different combinations of hormones, but studies suggest that those with more progestin provide greater protection against uterine cancer. Obese women, who are at greater risk of uterine cancer, may require a greater amount of progestin to combat their risk.
Uterine cancer is more common in women who are past menopause. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be an option for some women who want to control the symptoms of menopause, but if they also want to reduce the risk of uterine cancer, they should ask their doctors about taking a combined HRT with progestin or progesterone along with the estrogen.
Oral Contraception: Other Considerations
If you decide to take oral contraception, other things you should know include:
- You should take your birth control pill at the same time every day.
- Remember that without the additional use of a condom, you will not be protected against sexually transmitted diseases.
- Women have many options for hormone-based contraceptives. Women who cannot take estrogen may be able to use the progestin-only pills, and women who don't want to take a pill every day may be able to use a weekly skin patch that has a combination of hormones. Discuss all these options with your doctor.
- All medications have risks and benefits. Some risks involved in taking oral contraceptives include:
- Some oral contraceptives cause side effects such as headaches, nausea,
- breast tenderness, and moodiness.
- Women who smoke may be at increased risk of blood clots.
- While the data suggest that oral contraceptives can reduce the risk of uterine cancer even many years after stopping them, studies also show that using them for more than eight years may increase the overall risk of cervical and pituitary cancers. And some studies show an increased risk of breast cancer in women taking oral contraceptives, while others show no greater risk.
Uterine Cancer Prevention: Another Contraceptive
Studies have shown that intrauterine devices (IUDs) also reduce the risk of uterine cancer. IUDs are not hormone based, but may reduce risk by removing abnormal cells before they have a chance to become tumors.
If you've taken oral contraceptives in the past or are using them now, it is unlikely that you took them to reduce your risk of uterine cancer. But you may have unknowingly done just that, with that benefit extending even into the future.
Video: Birth Control Pills
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