Opinions
Danny Kirk/the Gauntlet

Can the pill really kill?

Exploring the carcinogenic risk associated with birth control pills

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There is no denying the popularity of the birth control pill to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Whether you're walking through the Science link or using the toilet, it is impossible to escape the three beautiful young women encouraging you to accept mission Alesse. Jane, a 21-year-old woman I spoke to, told me she started taking the pill at the age of 15. Jane said it was her doctor who encouraged her to begin taking Diane 35 for her mild acne problem.

"He told me it was the best solution," she said. Even though Jane was not sexually active at the time, she wanted to keep her skin blemish-free and not have to worry about an unwanted pregnancy in the future, or as the Diane 35 webpage puts it "a two-in-one solution package solves two of your concerns at one go." When I asked Jane if she is concerned about breast cancer as a potential side effect of the pill she ambivalently shrugged her shoulders.

"I think that there are a multitude of different factors that can combine to cause cancer and that it is hard to prove that the pill has any correlation with cancer," she said. "I have read some studies that say it helps to prevent some cancer, it's a very double-sided debate, I think."

Fourty-six years ago the first contraceptive pill received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. By 1921, 1.2 million American women were on the pill and in 1966 the first FDA task force to investigate the pill considered the possibility of blood clots, cancer and diabetes. However in 1988 the pill disappeared from the list of medical research's top 35 priorities, likely due to the voluntary removal of the original higher-dose pill by drug companies at the FDA's urging.

More recently, in 2003 the Centre for Research in Women's Health and the Women's College Health Sciences Centre at the University of Toronto examined the medical history and oral contraceptive use of 1,311 pairs of women known to carry certain types of gene mutation. They found that gene mutations most commonly occurred in women who had a strong family history of breast cancer and a relative under 40 who had experienced breast cancer. The study further identified that those women who had a certain variation of gene BRCA1 and had taken the pill for more than five years were at greater risk than women with the same mutation who had not taken the pill. It was also revealed that women who had started taking the pill before 1975 and those who used the pill before their 30s were also at an elevated risk.

The study appears to open more doors than it closes. Dr. Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes at Cancer Research UK identifies the challenges for women sorting through the vast and often ambiguous information available.

"There are so many messages coming out from different sources that it is very confusing for women to know what they should be concerned about," he says in an article on the Cancer Research UK website.

According to Dr. Sullivan, the pill is considered a low risk factor for developing breast cancer when compared to obesity, eating habits, alcohol or even being tall. It is important to keep findings like the aforementioned study in perspective before taking a Sharpie to any on-campus birth control pill ads. Dr. Sullivan notes that breast cancer is rare in young women--particularly in the age groups most likely to consider use of the contraceptive pill--and the number of women in the high risk bracket is small. As Jane pointed out, the pill may even reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. However, it is important that you consult your doctor before electing the pill as your contraceptive choice, especially if there are high instances of breast cancer within your family. If you would like more information on the pill or its possible side effects, visit www.cancerresearchuk.org.

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