Whether you're trying to figure out what birth control to use between kids, once you're done having 'em, or even before trying to conceive in the first place, you'll do well to have a thorough conversation with your health care provider about the risks and benefits of any and all of your options. This is the bottomline advice from researchers in Denmark who published a new study yesterday, Wednesday, December 6, reiterating a fact that the scientific community has warned us about time and again: Women who use birth control pills and IUDs that release hormones have a slight but significant increased risk of breast cancer.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed 1.8 million Danish women for more than a decade. Researchers concluded that for every 100,000 women using hormonal birth control, there are 68 cases of breast cancer annually, compared with 55 cases a year among nonusers. They note that there's a 20% higher risk of developing breast cancer among women currently or recently using the pill or hormonal IUDs. The longer women used these contraceptives, the higher their risk. Specifically, the risk was 9% for women using it for less than a year to 38% for those using them for 10 years or more.
This study differs from those in the past by being the first to examine the risks associated with the newer formulations on the market (many of which that have been marketed to younger women as being "low-dose" or having fewer side effects than old-school types that were higher in estrogen). David J. Hunter, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Oxford, wrote the commentary alongside the study and said in an interview with The New York Times. “There was a hope that the contemporary preparations would be associated with lower risk. This is the first study with substantial data to show that’s not the case.”
The researchers do note that they couldn't take other risk factors for breast cancer -- like exercise, breastfeeding, or alcohol consumption -- into account.
The Times also reports that officials with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that they would carefully evaluate the new findings, but emphasized that hormonal contraceptives are for many women “among the most safe, effective and accessible options available.” 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).
That said, plenty of nonhormonal options -- from the copper IUD to condoms to a diaphragm and spermicide -- exist and may be even safer options for many of us. With hope, this study empowers more women to evaluate what kind of contraception is best for their own personal wellness, now and in the future.