Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, can protect you from unwanted pregnancy and lower your risk for certain cancers. But they might also raise your chances of getting cervical cancer.
The good news is that the risk goes down when you stop taking them. And if you’re in your 20s, 30s, or early 40s, your risk is low. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the Link Between The Pill and Cervical Cancer?
The body naturally makes two hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Some cancer cells have receptors that allow them to use these hormones to grow.
Oral contraceptives contain synthetic (lab-made) versions of these hormones, so they could potentially raise your risk. Experts think that’s because they may change your cervical cells in some way, making them more vulnerable to infection from high-risk human papilloma virus (HPV), which is the cause of almost all cervical cancers.
Research suggests people who have used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have a higher risk of cervical cancer than those who’ve never used them. The longer you use oral contraceptives, the higher your risk of cervical cancer. One study found the risk rose by 10% with less than 5 years of use, 60% with 5-9 years of use, and double with 10 or more years of use. But the risk goes down over time if you stop using them.
How Can I Protect Myself From Cervical Cancer?
Picking your birth control based on the cancer risk isn’t recommended. And since cervical cancer is caused by HPV, protecting yourself from this virus lowers your risk. Steps you can take include:
Get the HPV vaccine. It protects you against certain strains of HPV that are responsible for 80% of all cases of cervical cancer. It’s given as three separate shots spaced over a period of 6 months. Anyone aged 9 to 45 can get this vaccine.
Practice safe sex. It’s true that if you are on the birth control pill, you don’t have to worry about pregnancy. But you can still contract HPV. Use condoms and/or dental dams every time you have sex. While they’re not as effective against HPV as they are against other STDs like chlamydia and HIV, they can provide protection.
Don’t smoke. Women who do are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to get cervical cancers. It’s thought that substances in the cigarettes damage the DNA of cervix cells, which makes it more likely that cancerous changes can develop. Smoking also makes your immune system less able to fight off the HPV virus.
Stay up to date on screenings. It’s recommended that women in their 20s get a Pap smear every 3 years. Women aged 30-65 can continue this screening, or get a test to check for HPV (or both) every 5 years. This helps ensure cervical cancer is caught early.