Birth Control

A Second Look at the Link Between Hormonal Birth Control and Cancer

Alarming headlines have circulated recently regarding a Danish research study that links hormonal contraceptives to an increased risk of breast cancer.

The study’s findings are significant—the research team sampled 1.8 million women, ranging from girls in their teens to middle-aged women. It was also a long term study that took 11 years to complete. Researchers compared data from women who used hormonal birth control consistently throughout the 11 years with data from women who used non-hormonal contraception methods, such as condoms and diaphragms.

In compiling their results, the researchers found that no matter what kind of hormonal birth control women were using, the group of women using hormonal contraceptives had a “20 percent increased risk” of breast cancer. And the longer the women took hormonal contraceptives, the higher their breast cancer risk.

Various media outlets seized upon the “20 percent increased risk” quote and ran with it, spreading distressing information about the link between hormonal birth control and breast cancer. Luckily, other journalists took a more nuanced look at the information presented by the researchers. While the study’s findings are important, the benefits of hormonal birth control often surpass the risks.

As noted by Aaron E. Carroll in the New York Times, the study did not account for other risk factors for breast cancer. Considerations that impact breast cancer risk, such as the amount of alcohol a woman consumes or whether she is physically active, were not factored into the study.

Hormonal birth control methods have also been proven to reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer, and most likely colorectal cancer as well. And while the 20 percent increase in risk sounds scary, if you rearrange the statistics, “there were only two additional cases for every 100,000 person years of use. That means only one extra case of breast cancer for every 50,000 women 35 or younger who use hormonal contraception each year.” Sounds a lot less scary, right?

Ultimately, while the study in question provides important information about the risks of hormonal birth control, it is by no means a reason for women to discontinue hormonal contraceptives. In most cases, the benefits of hormonal contraceptives outweigh the risks.

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