by Kristin Putnam
If you were to go to the American Cancer Society website looking for a list of Known Carcinogens (substances that are known to cause cancer in humans), you would find references to two lists compiled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxology program. The ACS concurs with these agencies methodologies in compiling each list. The National Toxology program lists 56 substances. The IARC lists 107 substances and provides a lengthy paper on their website for each substance, outlining the reasons for classifying it as a carcinogen. The consensus on these lists will not provide many surprises: Tobacco, Ultraviolet Tanning Beds, Asbestos, and Estrogen-Progesterone Oral Contraceptives among others.
Wait? What was that last one? Yes… Estrogen-Progesterone Oral Contraceptives (Combined OCP) made both lists. In addition to the explanation in the IARC’s 660 page paper, other researchers weighed in on this conclusion.
In 2005 the World Health Organization released a pamphlet which raised the carcinogenic rating of OCPs from a “possible carcinogen” to a “known carcinogen,” meaning these pills do cause cancer in humans.
In 2006 the Mayo clinic published an article linking Oral Contraceptive use to pre-menopausal breast cancer. They pulled 34 separate blind studies conducted after 1980 linking OCs to breast cancer and compiled the data. They found that in general women who take OCs for any length of time increase the risk of breast cancer by 19%. Those who take OCs before their first full term pregnancy raise their risk by 44%.
Their conclusion was that the “Use of OCs is associated with an increased risk of premenopausal breast cancer, especially with use before First Full Term Pregnancy in parous women.”
Another study published in 2010 by Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Preventionfound that African American women who used recent formulations of Oral Contraceptives had a 65% increase risk of developing breast cancer, and as duration of use increased so did the risk.
The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study in 2002 linking breast cancer and hormonal contraceptives as well. This study was quite extensive and delved into many specifics but here are the highlights:
- Overall, women who use OCs have a 20% increased risk of breast cancer
- Women previously diagnosed with ovarian cancer and used OCs for 5+ years saw a 329% increased risk of Breast Cancer
- Each year a women uses OC’s her risk for Cancer increased by 2% (compounding each year)
- Women who have ever used OCs have a 38% increased risk of breast cancer diagnosed before the age of 40.
- Women who stopped taking OCs recently showed little rise in risk currently, but those who stopped taking OCs 10+ years ago had a 60% increased risk of breast cancer. This means that the pill continues to negatively impact your health for years after it’s taken (note *OC formulations changed significantly in 1975, but have not changed significantly in the last 10 years, meaning that the pills you take today, will likely impact you a decade from now).
So then, How does this known carcinogen become synonymous with “Women’s Health” and “Preventative Care”?
It has been repeatedly mentioned that Hormonal Contraceptives 1) reduce the risk of endometrial cancer, 2) are used to treat other dysfunctions of the reproductive system like endometriosis.
The reduction of the risk of endometrial cancer is not because the pill contains an ingredient which affects the cancer itself, but is because of the third function of the pill. All OCs thin the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) to make it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant. According to a meta-study in 2000, the endometrium is thinned on average to a thickness of 1.1mm. Simply put, the endometrium is so thin that there is no place in which cancer could grow.
Concerning the use of OCs to treat other disorders, it must be mentioned that this no longer falls under the argument of “preventative care.” Nevertheless, this could be seen as a benefit unless one understands that OCs never actually treat the dysfunction, they only serve to mask symptoms giving the appearance of normalcy. Dr. Mary Martin OB/GYN FACOG says, “There is always a reason why women don’t ovulate normally, have intermenstrual bleeding, having pain or infertility. To prescribe OCPs for these symptoms may delay or prevent a diagnosis. Alternatives are available which may uncover the gynecological problem for which the Pill is prescribed.”
In 2011 Oxford Journals of Human Reproduction released a study that reveals a possible detriment for this use of the pill. “Our data indicate that a history of OC use for severe primary dysmenorrhea (heavy bleeding) is associated with surgical diagnosis of endometriosis, especially deep infiltrating endometriosis, later in life.
If increased risks of cancer and serious endometriosis weren’t enough, just take a quick look through the packaging of the 37 most popular forms of hormonal contraception and you will find that the following risk factors (among others) are increased:
- Blood Clots
- Liver Tumors
- High Blood Pressure
- Cancer of Reproductive Organs
- Breast Cancer
- Ovarian Cysts
- Ectopic Pregnancy
How about side effects that many women deal with every day? Looking through those same information packets you’ll find a laundry list of side effects, with the most common listed below.
- Nausea, Vomiting, Stomach Cramps
- Breakthrough Bleeding
- Mood Swings
- Breast Tenderness
- Yeast Infections/ Vaginal Itching
- Interference with Contact Lenses/Vision
- Loss of Scalp Hair and Increased Body Hair Growth
- Decreased Libido
Despite all of these factors, we are still told that we would be denying a woman’s right to preventative care if we withheld contraceptives. It seems to me that all we are left with is preventative care = preventing pregnancy. Preventive medicine or preventive care is defined as “Measures taken to prevent diseases,(or injuries) rather than curing them or treating their symptoms.” Pregnancy is not, and has never been classified as a disease.
But perhaps a child scares you more than death. Perhaps you don’t feel ready for a child. Perhaps, you would like a few more years before you think about getting pregnant. According to one researcher, if you use hormonal contraception to postpone pregnancy, you may be waiting longer than you bargained for.
Dr. Erik Odeblad (one of the lead researchers who introduced the pill to the world in the 60s) went on to studythe effect of OCs on the cervix and long term fertility. He found that OCs cause the glands that produce certain types of mucus to atrophy. This may not seem like a big deal until you know that this mucus must be present to feed and transport sperm to an egg to achieve successful fertilization. If this mucus is absent, you cannot naturally achieve pregnancy.
So, tell me, How does the Pill improve women’s health again?
 “Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.” American Cancer Society :: Information and Resources for Cancer: Breast, Colon, Prostate, Lung and Other Forms. American Cancer Society, June-July 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.
 IARC. “IARC Monographs- Classifications.” IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. World Health Organization. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.
 IARC. “Hormonal Contraception and Post-menopausal Hormonal Therapy.” IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans 72 (1999): 1-660. Web.
 UNDP/UNFPA/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP). Carcinogenicity of Combined Hormonal Contraceptives and Combined Menopausal Treatment. 2005. Print.
 Kahlenborn, C., F. Modugno, D. M. Potter, and W. B. Severs. “Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Premenopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis.” Mayo Clin Proc 81.10 (2006): 290-302. Print.
 Rosenberg, et al. “Oral Contraceptive Use and Estrogen/Progesterone Receptor–Negative Breast Cancer among African American Women.” Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers 19 (2010): 2073. American Association for Cancer Research, June-July 2010. Web.
 Narod, et al. “Oral Contraceptives and the Risk of Breast Cancer in BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutation Carriers.” JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst 94.23 (2002): 1773-779. Print.
 Larimore, Stanford. “Postfertilization Effects of Oral Contraceptives and Their Relationship to Informed Consent.” Arch Fam Med 9 (2000): 126-33. Print.
 Chapron, et al. “Oral Contraceptives and Endometriosis: The past Use of Oral Contraceptives for Treating Severe Primary Dysmenorrhea Is Associated with Endometriosis, Especially Deep Infiltrating Endometriosis.” Hum. Reprod. 26.8 (2011): 2028-035. Print.
 “Preventive Medicine.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.
 Odeblad, Erik. “Some Notes on the Cervical Crypts.” Bulletin of the Ovulation Method Research and Reference Centre of Australia 24.2 (1997): 31. Web.