The Pill Helps Prevent Womb Cancer Even After You Stop Taking It
The Debrief: It's nice to hear some good news about the pill.
Oral contraceptives, known to their friends (and foes) as The Pill is one of the most defining, most divisive and most difficult issues in women’s health. Oral contraceptives ushered in an era of sexual freedom that, arguably, transformed women’s lives in a single generation (although I remember agony aunt Claire Rayner once telling me that it was in fact central heating – and the ability to have sex all year round in any room in the house – that had given women sexual freedom). However, the short and long term health impact of The Pill is only starting to be investigated.
A new study published in the Lancet has looked at the long-term effects of oral contraceptives on 143,0139 women, of whom 27,276 had endometrial (womb) cancer and 115 743 did not. 'We compared women that have cancer of the womb with women who don’t,' says Professor Dame Valerie Beral of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford. 'We do an adjustment for other factors – age, number of children, ethnicity, equally obese etc so we really are comparing like with like. And it’s been shown unequivocally that in the long term a woman who has taken the pill is less likely to get cancer than a similar woman who hasn’t taken the pill. And I mean cancer. All the cancers put together.'
When she says all cancer, she means all cancer. 'There’s a small increase in breast cancer while women are on the pill but it goes away when they stop,' explains Professor Beral. 'Also, although breast cancer gets a lot of attention among women in their 20s and 30s, it is pretty rare. Whereas among women in their 60s and 70s, when cancer is common, you’ve still got this big protection against womb and ovary cancer.'
According to the study’s abstract (which is available on The Lancet website if you like reading things like ‘RR 0·69, 95% CI 0·66–0·71’) this reduction in risk continued for more than 30 years after women came off the pill, ‘with no apparent decrease… for use during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, despite higher oestrogen doses in pills used in the early years.’
Of course, this is just one study into one type of cancer and more research is clearly needed. Especially when the immediate side effects of The Pill – mental and physical – seem so poorly understood, even by the many doctors who prescribe them, not to mention the women who take them. But, according to Professor Beral, 'Young women should know that taking the pill is, in the long term, good for their health. '
And we have central heating now.
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