Birth control pills linked to lower risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer, even decades after use

UPPSALA, Sweden — Oral contraceptives provide women with a fast and effective way of preventing unwanted pregnancy. While these benefits are immediate, a new study finds taking “the pill” may also be protecting women from certain cancers for years to come. Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden report that taking birth control pills can cut the risk of both ovarian and endometrial cancers, even 30 years after taking your last dose.

Study authors say ovarian and endometrial cancers are the most common forms of gynecological cancer. About two percent of women will develop one of these types of cancer in their lifetime. While endometrial is a slightly more common variety of the disease, doctors tend to detect this cancer early and the risk of death is fairly low. Ovarian cancer on the other hand typically remains hidden until it spreads to other areas of the body. This makes it one of the deadliest forms of cancer for women.

Health officials approved the first birth control pills for use in the 1960’s. The Swedish team says oral contraceptives contain synthetic forms of estrogen and progesterone, two female sex hormones. These prevent ovulation and therefore stop unwanted pregnancy.

Long-lasting impact

The study examined over 250,000 women, comparing the rates of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers in participants who have taken birth control pills and those who never have. The results reveal a clear benefit for reducing the risk for gynecological cancer. That lower risk even stayed steady with patients who eventually stopped taking contraceptives.

“It was clear that women who used the pill had a much lower risk of developing both ovarian and endometrial cancers. The risk remained lower, even after the women stopped taking the pill. Still 15 years after the women stopped using the pill, the risk was halved, and we could see that the protective effect persisted for over 30 years,” says lead researcher Åsa Johansson in a university release.

No link between birth control pills & breast cancer?

Although previously studies have warned of a potential link between taking birth control pills and breast cancer, the new report finds a surprising lack of evidence of this.

“A rather unexpected result was that we did not see a strong effect of oral contraceptives on the risk of breast cancer. We could only see a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in women who used oral contraceptives and the increased risk disappeared already a few years after they stopped,” Johansson reports.

Researchers add that their findings are important because of the negative health impacts often tied to taking the pill. The Swedish team says women often hear warnings about the possible risk for blood clots and development of cancer from taking contraceptives.

“In addition to protecting against pregnancy, we have shown that oral contraceptives also have other positive effects. Our results may enable women and doctors to make more informed decisions considering which women should use contraception,” says phD student and study author Therese Johansson.

The study appears in the journal Cancer Research.

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