The birth control Pill and cancer
High levels of our own natural hormones can increase our risk of cancer. But some medical treatments can also increase our hormone levels, including hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and the birth control Pill.
This page will talk about the Pill and whether it affects your cancer risk.
Different types of Pill
Oral contraceptives, commonly known as ‘the Pill’, are a popular form of birth control in the UK. There are two main types:
- The combined Pill. This is by far the most common type and consists of two female hormones - oestrogen and progestogen.
- The mini-Pill. This pill only contains progestogen. Because it has no oestrogen, it has fewer side effects but is also less effective. The mini-Pill is much less popular than the combined type.
Because the Pill works by altering hormone levels, there have been concerns about whether it could affect a woman’s cancer risk. Scientists have found that the Pill:
The Pill and cancer
Over short periods, using the Pill can slightly increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. But women who stay on it for over 10 years have double the risk of this cancer. This risk disappears once women stop using the Pill.
Scientists used to believe that the Pill only indirectly raised the risk of cervical cancer. The idea was that women who used the Pill were more sexually active and more likely to contract HPV - a sexually-transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. But the evidence now suggests that the Pill itself may have a direct effect.
The Pill also slightly increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. But this risk increase disappears within 10 years of going off the Pill.
The mini-Pill and cancer
Based on a small number of studies, it looks as if the mini-Pill affects a woman’s risk of cancer in the same way as the combined Pill. It could slightly increase the risk of breast and cervical cancers, but protect against womb and ovarian cancers. But we can’t say this for sure until larger studies are done.
Should I use the Pill?
Your doctor can help you to make an informed choice about whether to use the Pill. This decision should weigh up the risks and benefits, your lifestyle, your personal beliefs and preferences, and whether you have a strong family history of cancer.
Bear in mind that while the Pill can increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer, there are national screening programmes for both these cancers. Attending cervical screening can ensure that any changes in your cervix are detected before they develop into full-blown cancers. And breast screening can detect any disease at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team