Although researchers have known for years that use of the birth control pills can cut the risk of ovarian cancer, the medical world got all excited last week with the release of new evidence indicating that the cancer-preventing effects can last as long as 30 years after women stop taking the pill. The latest report, based on research by Valerie Beral from the Cancer Research U.K. Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, found that the longer women take the pill, the more cancer-preventing benefit they derive. The report culled 45 studies involving over 23,000 women, and found that those women who stayed on the pill for 15 years or longer cut their risk of getting ovarian cancer in half, plus also reduced their risk of endometrial and colorectoral cancers.
All this good news about the pill led the researchers to publish an editorial in the medical journal Lancet recommending that more women sign up to take the pill. “We strongly endorse more widespread over-the-counter access to a preventive agent that can not only prevent cancers but also demonstrably save the lives of tens of thousands of women,” the editorial said, thus elevating the pill from a pregnancy-preventing salve to a life-saving wonder-drug. This recommendation comes in spite of the fact that the pill has been linked to a host of other problems, including increased rates of breast and cervical cancers.
Apparently, the co-author of the study, Sir Richard Peto, Professor of Epidemiology at Oxford University isn’t worried about those other cancers. “Young women don’t have to worry about cancer from taking the pill because the eventual reduction in ovarian cancer is bigger than any increase in other types of cancer caused by the pill,” he said. His sentiment was echoed by Dr Lesley Walker, head of Cancer Research UK, who added: “All women who have taken the pill or are currently taking it should be reassured by this study.”
In truth, I think women should find very little to be reassured about in this study. In fact, they should be concerned a lot about the pill, which more than 100 million women already take. Among other things, it has been implicated not just in breast cancer and cervical cancer but also blood clots, serious depression, and heart disease. Ever since the pill was introduced in the 1960’s, it’s been linked with a host of deadly complications. Newer versions of the pill are supposed to be much safer than the early high-estrogen doses, but unsettling news casts doubt on even that claim. Within the past year, for instance, a consumer advocacy group petitioned the FDA to ban third-generation pills containing a new type of synthetic progestin because seven separate studies showed that the newer version of the pill causes even more blood clots than the earlier versions did.
Also this year, new studies found that the pill caused a 20 to 30-percent increase in arterial plaque in women who took the pill for at least 10 years. Some studies have found that the pill increases the risk of heart attack by up to 200 percent. And, the risk of breast cancer is hardly insignficant. Studies have shown that women under age 36 who take the pill for six months or longer prior to their first pregnancy have at least a 41 percent increased risk of getting breast cancer. In addition, the pill depletes vitamins and amino acids and can cause yeast overgrowth, mood swings, and migraines.
Given the problems associated with the pill, you might wonder how that new UK study could possibly conclude that more women should sign up for it. Here’s a clue: study director Valeria Beral points out that the benefits outweigh the risks because the breast cancer risk exists only while women actually are taking the pill, with no residual risk after they quit, whereas the protection against ovarian cancer continues long after they stop. This type of thinking is like saying that it’s a good idea to marry an abusive mate because you’re only at risk when you actually spend time with your partner. Assuming he or she doesn’t kill you, you can divorce after a while and then collect alimony for years.
To reasonable people, it’s like choosing between a poke in the eye or a kick in the groin. It’s hardly reasonable to tell women to put themselves in harm’s way for a limited time so that, maybe, they can be safe later on. Although the drug companies would love for all women to go on the pill right away, I can’t help questioning the wisdom of doing so.