The pill ‘increases breast cancer risk by 25 ,’ so should we be worried?
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The pill ‘increases breast cancer risk by 25%,’ so should we...

A new study about the pill has everyone talking (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

Every day, millions of women across the country pop a little pill into our mouths without a second’s thought.

But now, new research suggests all forms of hormonal contraception including the pill, the implant or an intrauterine device (IUD or coil), increase the risk of breast cancer by between 23 and 32%.

The study, from the University of Oxford, builds on previous research suggesting a potential link between the combined pill and breast cancer.

Now, scientists believe progestogen-only hormonal contraceptives like the ‘mini pill’ have similar effects.

So, should we be worried?

While a 25% average increased risk may sound alarming, the researchers stressed that the overall risk increase is still small and that breast cancer is rare in younger women, so don’t panic just yet. What’s more, they said the risk increase associated with contraceptives appears to decline when women stop using them.

Gillian Reeves, professor of statistical epidemiology and director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, said: ‘I don’t really see that there’s any indication here to say that women need to necessarily change what they’re doing.’

She added: ‘Yes, there is an increase here, and yes, nobody wants to hear that something that they’re taking is going to increase their risk for breast cancer by 25%.

‘The main purpose of doing this research was really to fill a gap in our knowledge.’

Okay, but what do the numbers say?

To gather their results, researchers analysed data from 9,498 women who developed breast cancer between ages 20 to 49 and compared this data from 18,171 closely matched women without breast cancer.

They looked at whether they’d been prescribed hormonal contraception and compared breast cancer risk for women who’d used it for five years, compared to those who didn’t.

In women aged 16-20 who didn’t use hormonal contraception, around 84 per 100,000 were likely to get breast cancer in a 15-year period, the researchers said.

Among those in the same age group who took oral contraception for five years, the breast cancer risk was estimated to be 92 per 100,000 – an excess of eight women per 100,000.

The results differed slightly depending on the age of the women concerned.

For those aged over 25, the breast cancer risk was 505 per 100,000 for non-users within 15 years, and 566 per 100,000 for those who used contraception between the ages of 25 and 39 (an extra 61 per 100,000 women), Among women aged over 35, 1,953 per 100,000 women get breast cancer within 15 years, but among those who had five years of oral contraceptive use from age 35-39, this increased to 2,218 per 100,000 – an excess risk of 265 per 100,000 women.

Professor Reeves added: ‘We’ve known for many years that combined oral contraceptives, which women have been using for decades, also have an effect on breast cancer risk – a small increase in risk which is transient.

‘We weren’t absolutely sure what the corresponding effect of these progestogen-only contraceptives would be.

‘What we’ve shown is that they’re just the same in terms of breast cancer risk, they seem to have a very similar effect to the other contraceptives, and the effect that we’ve known about for many years.

‘I suspect that if women were prepared to accept those risks in the past, in return for the many benefits of taking hormonal contraceptives, then they may well be prepared to carry on doing that.’

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The study, published in Plos Medicine, did not look at other risk factors such as family history of breast cancer and charities have said further research is needed.

Dr Kotryna Temcinaite, head of research communications at Breast Cancer Now, reassured women using hormonal contraception that ‘if you stop using them, this added risk of breast cancer reduces over time’.

‘The study didn’t look at what hormonal contraceptives the women may have used in the past or consider how long they may have been on the progestogen-only contraception,’ she said.

‘It also didn’t factor in whether a family history of the disease contributed to their level of risk. So further work is needed to help us fully understand the impact of using this type of contraception.

‘Breast cancer is rare in young women. A slight increase in risk during the time a woman uses hormonal contraceptive means only a small number of extra cases of the disease are diagnosed.’

MORE : Post-pill clarity: ‘I came off contraception and didn’t fancy my partner anymore’

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