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Birth Control Health Center

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Contraceptive Pill: Cancer Protection

Strong Protection From Ovarian Cancer Gives the Pill Overall Anticancer Effect
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan 24, 2008 -- Oral contraceptives cut women's risk of ovarian cancer for more than 30 years after they stop taking them -- giving the pill a net anticancer effect.

Each five-year interval of oral contraceptive use cuts a woman's ovarian cancer risk by up to 29%. The longer a woman uses the pill, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer, find Valerie Beral, MD, director of the Cancer Research Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, England, and colleagues.

"We can say the longer women take it, the longer the protection, which lasts 30 years after they stop," Beral tells WebMD. "This does outweigh any other cancer risk from taking the pill. So the net effect is to reduce cancer overall. Women on the pill do not need to worry they are putting themselves at long-term risk of cancer."

It's been known for a long time that oral contraceptives cut a woman's lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. It's also known that the drug increases a woman's risk of breast and cervical cancer while she's on the pill. Now Beral and colleagues have been able to put numbers on these risks.

"In breast and cervical cancer there is increased risk, but these effects disappear and are not persistent after a woman discontinues oral contraceptives," Beral says. "Whereas ovarian cancer protection lasts for decades -- into the ages when this cancer becomes more common for a woman."

Pill's Anticancer Effect 'Definitive'

An astonishing amount of data went into the study. Beral and colleagues combined data from 45 high-quality studies that included detailed data on 23,257 women with ovarian cancer and on 87,303 women without ovarian cancer.

They calculate that over the 50 years oral contraceptives have been on the market, the drugs have prevented at least 200,000 ovarian cancers and prevented 100,000 deaths. Because use of the pill is increasing, they predict that the pill will prevent at least 30,000 cases of ovarian cancer each year for the next several decades.

It's an "unequivocal protective effect," says Eduardo Franco, DrPH, director of the division of cancer epidemiology at Montreal's McGill University. Franco's editorial accompanies the Beral paper in the Jan. 26 issue of The Lancet.

"This study decides once and for all there is a real protective effect against ovarian cancer that is strong and cuts across all demographic groups," Franco tells WebMD.

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