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Study finds link between birth control and breast cancer risk

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(Cleveland Clinic)-- About 140 million women worldwide use hormonal contraceptives.

Now, a new study links the use of these birth control methods to an increased risk of breast cancer in women.

The study looked at data from 1.8 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 over more than a decade.

Researchers found that women who took hormonal contraceptives, including pills, patches, and implantable devices, had a 20 percent increased risk of breast cancer. The risk was higher the longer the contraceptives were used.

The study also found that women who stopped using hormonal contraceptives still had a higher risk of breast cancer after five years than women who had never used them.

Rebecca Starck, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, did not take part in the study, but said the risk, while present, was relatively small.

“If you look at the absolute risk, the likelihood of getting breast cancer amongst current users, was really only approximately 13 women per every 100,000, so, it’s really a slightly increased risk overall,” said Dr. Starck.

Dr. Starck also said for many women, the benefit of taking these contraceptives outweighs the potential risks.

“Hormonal contraceptives were initially used for contraception, but we’ve recognized over the years that this is actually hormonal therapy that can be used for many non-contraceptive-type conditions such as menstrual irregularities, heavy periods, and as a great alternative to hysterectomy for a lot of women,” she said.

Previous research has shown that hormonal contraceptive use can actually reduce a woman’s risk of other cancers such as ovarian, uterine, and colon cancer.

Dr. Starck said it’s important for women to know that there are many other factors that can impact overall cancer risk. 

She said women currently using hormonal birth control methods should certainly not panic and if they have concerns, it’s best to talk to their doctor about their individual risks and develop a plan that’s right for them.

“Women should have a conversation with their health care provider about their overall family risk, their personal risk; look at factors such as weight, exercise, and nutrition, because there are many factors that increase our risk for cancer.” 

Complete results of the study can be found in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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