On August 1, a cancer study, published in The Journal of Cancer Research and conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, stated that there is evidence that the link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer may in fact be greater than previous studies had indicated. Since the study was first published, there has been a flurry of activity as some writers more eager to defend birth control than to educate women are tripping over themselves and the available data to assure their reading public that the study is, in fact, insignificant. With Douglas-Adams’-style-DON’T-PANIC titles such as Do Not Freak Out About Birth Control Being Linked to Cancer, authors on more casual blog sites add a snide eyeroll bemoaning the probability that people will use this new information as an argument against birth control.
I have a confession to make: they are totally right. Of course people who hold the belief that birth control is damaging morally and physically will use current scientific studies to increase awareness of the medical risks. This fact should not prevent birth control advocates from reporting the truth, yet many authors are apparently in the middle of a grotesque game of Telephone as they repeat incomplete data and skewed facts from the new study even as they dismiss its relevance. Let’s first look at the scientific results:
Hormonal contraceptives are called a “known carcinogen,” or definitely carcinogen to humans. What makes hormonal contraception carcinogenic?
In simplified terms, hormonal contraception prevents pregnancy by artificially producing hormones that make your body think you are already pregnant. One by-product is that these hormones change breast cells to milk-producing cells. In the case of an actual pregnancy, another wave of hormones comes at birth to allow those cells to do their job: produce milk. With the use of hormonal contraception, because the body makes those milk-producing cells for an unnatural amount of time and never gets that next wave of hormones post-birth there is an increased chance of the cells mutating into cancerous cells.
How risky is a “known carcinogen”?
It varies. Oral contraceptives are particularly challenging to determine because 1) there are many varieties on the market, and 2) birth control is such a recent development, “the health benefits and adverse effects in women have not yet been followed over a complete generation, even though they are some of the most widely used drugs in the world.”
The Fred Hutchinson Study
- The study took place between 1990 and 2009.
- 1,102 women aged 20-49 using oral contraceptives and diagnosed with breast cancer. This group’s contraception use was then compared to a control group of 21,952 women who were cancer-free.
- This study differs from prior studies by studying contemporary contraceptive formulations, and by accessing the test subjects’ health records while previous studies had relied on self-reported data.
- Most women develop breast cancer malignancies between the ages of 50-60. One of the purposes of this study was to determine if recent use of oral contraception increases the risk of breast cancer in young women.
The Study Results: There are other forms of oral contraceptives which also showed a higher risk increase. Read the report summary for complete details.
- High-dose estrogen increased the risk 2.7-fold
- Moderate-dose estrogen increased the risk 1.6-fold
- Low-dose estrogen no sign that it increases breast cancer risk
The percentage of women in the control group who used the oral contraception types from 2005-2009:
- 78% Moderate-dose estrogen
- 24% Low dose estrogen
- <1% High dose-estrogen
The study concludes that, “compared with the control group, the women who had used birth control pills in the previous year had a 50 percent higher risk overall than women who had either never used the drugs or had used them in the past.” Dr. Owen Montgomery, a spokesman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said, “Talk to your provider about the type of birth control you’re using and make sure it meets your needs in light of this new information.”
In multiple articles written for non-scientific journals, one piece of data is put forward to indicate that the breast cancer risk is minimal: only 1% of oral contraception users take the high-dose estrogen, while ignoring that 78% of the women in the study use the moderate-dose estrogen, which has a 1.6-fold risk increase according to the study.
“[The Fred Hutch study] 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.” ~ Newsweek
“You may have heard or read about this story in the media. In most cases, the reports only talked about birth control pills increasing risk and didn’t explain that it was only high-dose estrogen birth control pills…other types of birth control pills, including low-dose estrogen pills, WERE NOT linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.” ~ BreastCancer.org
“The Atlantic notes that the study found no increased risk of cancer among women who took low-dose birth control pills, otherwise known as the more commonly prescribed type of oral contraception.” ~ Salon [Note: Review the study. Overall oral contraception averaged a 50% increase. High-dose estrogen has a 270% increase. Why is there no mention of moderate-dose estrogen, taken by 78% of users?]
“Breast cancer is already really rare – a woman’s risk of developing it at age 40 is only about 1.5 percent, and it’s only 2.38 percent at age 50. Increasing either of those numbers by even a factor of three makes a difference, but not much of one.” ~ The Atlantic [Breast cancer is the second leading cancer in women in the U.S. with a 1 in 8 chance over a woman’s lifetime. It hardly needs saying, but increasing the risk of breast cancer at any age makes a difference to the women who develop it.]
It is always a bad sign when anyone is so desperate to win an argument that they fear and hide facts. It is true that the birth control debate has succeeded in dividing people, but new medical research should not be a part of the politicization. Everyone stands to gain if women are properly informed of health risks, and everyone should be outraged at the way this study has been handled by many in the media. Evidently, some writers do not trust that their readers can handle all the information, and have deemed themselves the Public’s Filter. Demand corrections from the editors, citing the original study. Let them know that we do not need to be infantilized by our journalists.