Does the contraceptive pill increase cancer risk?
- Yes, the contraceptive (or birth control) pill can slightly increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer
- But it can decrease the risk of some other cancer types
- Each person's risk will be different, so talk to your GP if you have concerns about using birth control
What is the contraceptive pill?
Oral contraceptives, also known as ‘the pill’, are a popular form of birth control in the UK. They prevent pregnancy by changing the levels of hormones in the body that control the menstrual cycle.
There are two main types. By far the most common type, the combined pill, has two female sex hormones, oestrogen and progestogen. The other type, the mini-pill, contains progestogen, and is also known as the progestogen-only pill or POP.
Taking the combined pill increases the risk of breast and cervical cancer
Those currently taking the combined pill have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. Taking the combined pill for only a short time may not have any effect on risk of cervical cancer. But, those who have been using it for 5 years or more have an increased risk of getting cervical cancer than those who have never used the combined pill.
The increased risk of breast and cervical cancer falls back down again once the combined pill stops being taken. About 10 years after stopping, a person’s risk is no longer affected.
But, the combined pill decreases the risk of ovarian and womb cancers
The longer the combined pill is taken for, the bigger the reduction in ovarian and womb cancer risk. And the effect remains for decades after the pill has stopped being used. So, overall the protective effects outweigh the risks.
Does taking the mini-pill affect cancer risk?
Because less people use the mini-pill, it’s more difficult to find out if any effect on cancer risk is just down to chance. And, we can’t know the effects on cancer risk for sure until larger studies are done.
Evidence so far suggests the mini-pill affects the risk of breast cancer in a similar way to the combined pill. But, use of progestogen-only products, like the mini-pill have not been linked to ovarian cancer risk.
Should I use a contraceptive pill?
Your doctor can help you to make an informed choice about whether to use the pill. Your decision should consider the risks and benefits, your lifestyle, any other medical conditions and your personal preferences.
There are many other birth control options available. Some, like the implant, injection and IUS (hormonal coil) also contain hormones, and others, like the IUD (coil), do not. So, you can find what works for you.
It’s also important to remember that there are other things that can affect your risk of cancer more strongly. Find out more about them on our website.
Changes in our cells that stop them from multiplying in a controlled way causes cancer. This can happen by direct damage to DNA, which contains the instructions for how our cells should behave. But, it can also happen when our cells are not properly told what to do. The combined pill may increase the risk of breast cancer by increasing levels of hormones that encourage some cells to multiply more than normal. It’s not clear how the combined pill might increase the risk of cervical cancer, though there are some possibilities. For example, almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), the pill may stop the body from clearing the infection. But, more research is needed to work out what’s going on. You can find out more about HPV and cervical cancer on our website It is also not well understood why the combined pill has been found to reduce the risk of ovarian and womb cancers. Hormones in the pill change how cells develop in the ovary, which prevents pregnancy, so one theory is that this may also have a role in reducing the likelihood of cancer cells developing.
Appleby, P. et al. Cervical cancer and hormonal contraceptives: collaborative reanalysis of individual data for 16,573 women with cervical cancer and 35,509 women without cervical cancer from 24 epidemiological studies. Lancet (London, England) 370, 1609–1621 (2007). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)61684-5/fulltext
Beral, V. et al. Ovarian cancer and oral contraceptives: collaborative reanalysis of data from 45 epidemiological studies including 23,257 women with ovarian cancer and 87,303 controls. Lancet (London, England) 371, 303–314 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK75366/
International Collaboration of Epidemiological Studies of Cervical Cancer. Breast cancer and hormonal contraceptives: collaborative reanalysis of individual data on 53 297 women with breast cancer and 100 239 women without breast cancer from 54 epidemiological studies. Lancet (London, England) 347, 1713–1727 (1996). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(96)90806-5/fulltext
IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Pharmaceuticals. 100A, (2012).
Schlesselman, J. J. Risk of endometrial cancer in relation to use of combined oral contraceptives. A practitioner’s guide to meta-analysis. Hum. Reprod. 12, 1851–1863 (1997). https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/12/9/1851/613121