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The Pill Prevents ... Colorectal Cancer?

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"When you have [this kind of indirect] finding, you may find several interpretations," La Vecchia says. "What we are trying to say is that the observation has a biological possibility. We don't know the exact mechanism."

The new report isn't proof that oral contraceptives protect against colorectal cancer. La Vecchia warns that dietary factors are probably far more important than hormones. But it does add to a growing body of evidence that birth-control pills have more health benefits than disadvantages.

Jeffrey T. Jensen, MD, MPH, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health Science University School of Medicine in Portland, reviewed the study for WebMD.

"The health risks of oral contraceptives have been played up to a much greater level than the potential health benefits," Jensen says. "These are products that have a number of tremendous reproductive health benefits not limited to contraception. Some people have been attracted to cosmetic aspects such as the documented reduction in acne, but more importantly there is a reduction in menstrual blood loss and menstrual pain. Perhaps most significant are reductions in the risk of certain malignancies. The most important is the strong reduction in ovarian cancer seen after as little as six months use and which seems to increase with continued use."

"The oral contraceptive is certainly a very good drug, but it has a number of side effects as well as benefits," La Vecchia says. "I don't think young women will use the pill to prevent cancer, they will use it only to prevent pregnancy. For individual women, I don't think cancer prevention should be the key factor for choosing the pill. But it may be an additional effect that influences their choice of contraceptive.

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