Late last year, women the world over woke up to some alarming news: A team of Danish researchers had discovered that using any form of hormonal birth control (like the Pill or a hormonal IUD) is associated with a slight increase in a woman’s breast-cancer risk. And yet doctors still almost universally agree that birth control is safe. Breast oncologist Mariana Chavez Mac Gregor, M.D., of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, sets the record straight about the correlation between birth control and breast cancer.
Does birth control cause breast cancer? Hormonal birth control has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but for the average woman, the increase is very small—a bit less than 2 percent for every year you’ve used it. That said, the longer you use hormonal birth control, the more your risk increases. If you’re someone with a low breast-cancer risk (no family history, a healthy lifestyle), the risk remains minimal even after years of use. But if you have a higher risk of breast cancer (say, you have a BRCA mutation), it could have a bigger impact.
Does the increased risk last forever? No. It gradually decreases after you get off birth control. Researchers believe that once a woman has been off it for five years, her risk will return to her personal baseline.
Are there upsides to hormonal birth control? Nearly 10 million American women use oral contraceptives, and 1.5 million of them are using them for reasons other than birth control (like to tame symptoms associated with hormonally-driven conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder). The pill is known to lessen the risk of three rarer but potentially deadly cancers: ovarian, endometrial, and colorectal.
Are other birth-control methods safer? If you’re worried about birth control and breast cancer, you may want to consider the copper IUD (ParaGard), condoms, tubal ligation, or vasectomy. But know that these methods won’t protect you from the disease. They just don’t expose you to the additional hormones that sometimes increase breast-cancer risk.
Bottom line: Taking hormonal birth control is a reliable way to prevent pregnancy, and the extra benefits (regular periods and lightened cramps, plus some cancer prevention) outweigh the negatives for most. That said, the best way to make an informed decision is to have an open discussion with your gynecologist. Then you can find an option that suits your lifestyle and concerns.