Could your birth control method lower your risk of ovarian cancer?

December 4, 2018 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
birth control

Researchers have found an association between the use of birth control pills that combine estrogen and progestogen and a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. Most of those studies focused on older formulations of the pills that contained higher doses of estrogen and different forms of progestogen than newer combined hormonal contraceptive pills.

A recent observational study, however, found that the newer pills are in fact associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The study tracked nearly 1.9 million women in Denmark between the ages of 15 and 49 for 19 years using national prescribing and cancer registers. Women who never took hormonal birth control pills had the highest rates of ovarian cancer. In contrast, those who used pills that combined both estrogen and progestogen at some point in their lives had a significantly lower incidence of ovarian cancer and their risk decreased with longer term use and continued to remain at a lower level for several years after stopping taking the pills. Women who took progestogen-only pills did not have a reduced risk.

Another study found that hormonal birth control pills not only lowered ovarian cancer risk, they also lowered the risk of developing endometrial cancer. For women who took the pill for 10 years or more, the risk of ovarian cancer was 40% lower compared to women who had never used the pill or used them for less than a year, and it was 34% lower for endometrial cancer. Some preliminary studies also found an association with hormonal birth control use and a lower risk of colon cancer, however more study is needed.

While hormonal oral contraceptives appear to have a positive effect on the risk of developing some types of cancers, studies have found that they may increase the risk of other types of cancer. Researchers found the use of these medications is associated with a modest increase in risk for breast cancer. In addition, studies found an association between hormonal birth control use and a higher risk for cervical cancer. The risk grows greater the longer you take the pills but decreases over time when you stop.

The reason researchers are intrigued by the new studies that show an association between hormonal birth control and a reduced risk of ovarian cancer is that, because early ovarian cancer has few symptoms and the symptoms that do occur are often subtle or similar to those of other more common conditions such as IBS, the disease is often diagnosed in its later stages when it has spread and is more difficult to treat. Those symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal bloating, indigestion, or nausea
  • Changes in appetite, such as a loss of appetite or feeling full sooner
  • Pressure in the pelvis or lower back
  • More frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • Constipation and changes in bowel movements
  • Increased abdominal girth
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Changes in menstruation

If you’re considering using hormonal birth control pills, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits they may have for you based on your personal and family health history.