The Birth Control Pill: Fight Cancer and More

By Judith Wolf, MD Surgery Section Chief, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center Professor, Gynecologic Oncology, Blanton Davis Ovarian Cancer Research Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston

The Birth Control Pill: Fight Cancer and More

Studies have shown that taking the birth control pill after the age of 40 can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by half. It can also help you fight colon, uterine and breast cancers.

In general, there is no age limit to birth control since it can be used for so many other reasons than preventing pregnancy. Review the following benefits and talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking the birth control pill to improve your quality of life and as a means of powerful prevention.

Here are the top 10 reasons to take the birth control pill:

10. Regular or No Periods           

Oral contraceptives shut down the intrinsic production of hormones by the ovary. This leads to a very consistent level of hormones. This helps regulate the timing of menstrual periods. Periods occur routinely every 28 days if the pills are taken in a cycle. Or if the pills are taken continuously, periods can be avoided all together, or only occur 3-4 times a year safely.

9. Lighter Periods

Almost universally, women on hormonal contraception have lighter periods than they have naturally. The longer a woman takes the pill, the lighter her period usually becomes. This is related to the relative level of activity of the two female hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen naturally causes growth of the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. Progesterone causes thinning of the endometrium. In a natural cycle, the estrogen level is higher before ovulation, growing the endometrium and preparing it for implantation of a potential pregnancy. After ovulation, progesterone levels rise to stabilize the growth of the endometrium. Then, if the egg is not fertilized, just before a menstrual period, the levels of both hormones drop and bleeding begins. With the birth control pill, levels of both hormones are constant; the levels of both hormones are consistent, leading to a relatively higher overall level of progesterone and a thinner endometrium. When the hormones are taken away, during the week off, a light period occurs. Also, importantly for preventing pregnancy, ovulation does not occur while on a oral contraceptive.

8. Less Cramping and Pain With Your Periods

Cramping during your period is caused by the uterus contracting, expelling the blood and clots of the cycle. Since bleeding is lighter while on the pill, cramping is much less.

7. Improvement in Premenstrual Symptoms

Many of the typical premenstrual symptoms are related to fluctuations in hormone levels that occur during a natural cycle. Because hormone levels are stable and constant while on the birth control pill, many of these symptoms are decreased or alleviated completely.

6. Treatment of Perimenopausal Symptoms

The level of estrogen produced by the ovaries often begins to decrease in women in their early forties, while they are still menstruating. Perimenopause refers to the years before menopause; hormone fluctuations can occur anywhere from the 2 to 10 years before a woman stops having her period. This can lead to menopause-like symptoms, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, etc. Cycles also sometimes become irregularly heavy. For women who do not smoke or have a history of blood clots or other contraindications for the birth control pill, it can be used to control these symptoms and regulate periods.

5. Improvement of Acne

The hormones in birth control pills can often improve acne in both young women and older women.

4. No Increased Risk of Breast Cancer in Women Who Are Not Post-Menopausal

Many women worry about the birth control pill increasing their risk of breast cancer. For women who are pre-menopausal and normally would have estrogen and progesterone in their system, taking the birth control pill does not increase the risk of breast cancer. For post-menopausal women, long-term use of hormones, especially combining estrogen and progesterone can slightly increase the risk of developing breast cancer, but not the risk of dying from breast cancer.

3. Decreased Risk of Colon Cancer

Although we don’t yet understand how it works, the birth control pill has been found in epidemiologic studies to reduce the risk of colon cancer by 20%. This may be due to the growth inhibitory affect of progesterone on the cells that line the colon – similar to its affect on the cells lining the uterus.

2. Decreased Risk of Endometrial Cancer

Endometrial cancer, cancer of the lining of the uterus, is the most common gynecologic cancer in the United States. It is caused by too much estrogen stimulating the growth and over-growth of the endometrial cells that line the uterus. In fact, obesity is the GREATEST risk factor for developing endometrial cancer. Fat, which is made of cholesterol, turns that cholesterol into estrogen. So the more fat, the more estrogen – and the greater the risk of endometrial cancer.

Women who are 50 pounds or more overweight increase their risk of endometrial cancer by 10 times over normal-weight women. The birth control pill, because it is more strongly progestegenic, can counteract the effect of estrogen, thinning the endometrium, and decreasing the risk of endometrial cancer by half!

1. It Cuts Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer in Half

Ovarian cancer is the most deadly of the gynecologic cancers. More than half of the women who get it die from it. We have no screening test for ovarian cancer and no way to detect it early.

Ovarian cancer most commonly starts from the cells that line the surface of the ovary. Every month when a woman ovulates, these cells breaks out of the surface of the ovary and those cells must repair the damage to the surface by multiplying and dividing. The more times a cell multiplies and divides, the more likely a mistake can be made in the DNA, which can lead to abnormal cell growth or cancer! The birth control pill blocks ovulation and that monthly damage and repair to the ovary, decreasing the rate of cell division and the possibility of a genetic mishap leading to cancer. It is also thought that the progesterone level in the pills reduces the growth of the cells and protect against cancer this way.

For more on The Pill, click here. 

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