Because Being a Woman Isn’t Scary Enough: Now Your Birth Control Could Cause Breast Cancer

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Have breasts? Trying not to get pregnant? A new study from Denmark has revealed that hormonal birth control of all types can raise your risk of developing breast cancer, which is frightening news to the legions of women who choose these methods to prevent conception.

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This new research expanded beyond high-dose birth control pills studied in years past to include low-dose contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices and implants, ultimately dispelling hopes that these lower dosages pose less risk.

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Lina Mørch, the University of Copenhagen research epidemiologist who led the study, cited “a roughly 20 percent increased risk [of breast cancer] among women who currently use some type of hormonal contraception.”

While that sounds like a significant increase in risk, epidemiologists actually consider it small. Mia Gaudet, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, clarifies this, saying, “A 20 percent increase of a very small number is still a very small number.”

This means that the overall risk is comparable to the extra breast-cancer risk posed by physical inactivity, excessive weight gain, or drinking one or more alcoholic drinks per day.

In an accompanying commentary, epidemiologist David Hunter confirms that the highest occurrence of breast-cancer cases in this research was among women using oral contraceptives long term and/or into their 40s. Yet he still believes that the risk should be weighed against the potential benefits of using hormonal birth control, which include a reduced risk of ovarian, endometrial and potentially even colorectal cancer.

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“So, many calculations suggest that the use of oral contraceptives actually prevents more cancers than it causes,” he says.

But what does this mean for black women, who are disproportionately affected by breast cancer (PDF) and other cancers, in general, including cervical and colorectal cancers? Specifically, although black women have a 6 percent lower risk of a breast-cancer diagnosis than white women, we have a 14 percent higher risk of death from it. Breast cancer is also the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women.

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This means that aside from adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, early detection is key, as is vigilance in regular self-checks and mammograms for women over the age of 40.

For more information, national support organizations like Sisters Network Inc. are a good place to start.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, an avid eyeshadow enthusiast and always her own muse. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.

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DISCUSSION

szielins
Stephan Zielinski

There are some critical numbers to be aware of. Mørch et alia did not study WOMEN here; they studied YOUNG women. Specifically, women between 15 and 49. Cancer isn’t much of a risk for the young; women between 15 and 49 seldom get breast cancer in the first place.

And so:

Among 1.8 million women who were followed on average for 10.9 years (a total of 19.6 million person-years), 11,517 cases of breast cancer occurred.

This is how it’s simultaneously true that (A) breast cancer is a serious issue for women, but (B) Gaudet is justified in characterizing the absolute risk of breast cancer in the population in question— women between 15 and 49— as “a very small number”.

(The low incidence rate of breast cancer before 50 is why the current recommendation is to let individual patients determine whether or not they want mammographies between 40 and 49, and only start really pushing them for patients between 50 and 75. Details: US Preventive Services Task Force: Breast Cancer: Screening.)