If You've Taken the Pill Recently, You May Be at Increased Risk of Breast Cancer

Birth control pill
The pill is a constant subject of debate. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The little birth control pill is a constant subject of debate. The drug is effective for preventing pregnancy, but at what cost? Is the surge of hormones harmful to the body or not? Women use the pill to treat acne and polycysts, regulate menstrual cramps and more—a 2011 survey by nonprofit Guttmacher Institute even found that 14 percent of women use the pill exclusively for reasons other than pregnancy prevention.

New data, however, suggest that higher estrogen doses in some birth control pills currently on the market are linked to a higher risk for breast cancer. A study published Friday in Cancer Research found that women who took high-dose estrogen birth control pills were 50 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. Women using other formulations of the pill that used low-dose estrogen were not found to be at increased risk.

Since the pill was introduced in the 1960s, there have been changes to the drug, including a decrease in estrogen dosage due to safety regulations and the possibility of patients becoming at-risk for certain kinds of cancer. The World Health Organization has classified this form of contraception as a definite carcinogen, citing increased rates of liver, cervical and breast cancer—yet it also has been studied as a possible preventive measure for cervical and endometrial cancer.

Women currently have a one-in-seven chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, but the study suggests the odds might increase when coupled with high-estrogen pills and genetic history. Results indicate that risk was highest in those who recently used birth control pills containing high doses of estrogen, but the Cancer Research study also notes that the diagnosed women were more likely to have a history of breast cancer among female relatives in their family.

The study recruited 1,102 women in the Seattle-Puget Sound area, ages 20 to 49, who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1990 and 2009, and 21,952 women who had not developed the disease. The scientists found that women who had taken high-estrogen oral contraceptives in the past year were 50 percent more likely to have developed breast cancer compared with at-risk women who formerly took them (but then stopped before the study was conducted), and with women who never ingested the pills at all.

Researchers suggest that recent use of contemporary oral contraceptive formulas with high-estrogen concentrations may put women ages 20 to 49 at higher risk for breast cancer, while low-dose formulations might not be linked to a higher risk of developing the disease. The results have yet to be confirmed, although the study mirrors others, such as The Nurses' Health Study II, which examined possible long-term consequences of taking birth control pills through ingestion.

However, physicians suggest that the potential benefits of birth control pills outweigh the risk, although all women react differently to taking the pill. Orally ingested pills are the leading contraceptive method in the United States and currently stand as the most effective method of preventing pregnancy.

"Breast cancer is rare among young women and there are numerous established health benefits associated with oral contraceptive use that must be considered," stated Elisabeth F. Beaber, a staff scientist in the Public Health Sciences Division of Fred Hutchinson Center Research Center in Seattle, in a press release. "In addition, prior studies suggest that the increased risk associated with recent oral contraceptive use declines after stopping oral contraceptives."

For now, it seems the most effective way to both prevent pregnancy and not be at risk for breast cancer is to just not have ovaries. So the research begs the question: Where is the alleged male contraceptive pill?