It's always been known that hormonal contraception, like any medicine, carries some risks.
While a link had been established between birth control pills and breast cancer years ago, this study is the first to examine the risks associated with current formulations of birth control pills and devices in a large population.
Other studies have shown hormonal birth control may lower the risk for ovarian and endometrial cancer.
The study is published today (Dec. 6) in The New England Journal of Medicine. Women who had used hormonal birth control for less than a year had only a 9 percent increase in their relative risk, while women who had used birth control for more than 10 years had a 38 percent increase.
Almost 10 million American women use oral contraceptives, including about 1.5 million who rely on them for reasons other than birth control. The study includes birth control pills, patches, rings, implants or injections.
Researchers in Denmark analyzed data on 1.8 million women and found that using any type of hormonal contraceptive was linked to a 20-percent higher risk of breast cancer.
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That may sound scary.
But the study did not account for some other things that affect breast cancer risk, including physical activity levels and alcohol consumption. But the odds rose among women who used hormonal contraception for more than 10 years, the study found.
"A 20 percent increase of a very small number is still a very small number", says Mia Gaudet, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society. It had no role in the design, analysis or interpretation of the study, or in writing the paper. "As with any medical intervention, hormonal contraception is associated with specific health risks".
"Oral contraceptives are like any other medication", Rao said.
The findings of alink between hormonal contraception and breast cancer is not new; studies going back decades have suggested that the hormones in birth control could raise the risk of breast cancer. "So, many calculations suggest that the use of oral contraceptives actually prevents more cancers than it causes".
There was optimism that newer, low-dose contraceptives would lower the breast cancer risk, but these results have dashed those hopes, said Gaudet, who wasn't involved in the research.
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Meanwhile, a conversation with your doctor can help you figure out which contraceptive method makes most sense for you.
What those numbers mean in terms of actual women getting breast cancer who otherwise may not have is a bit less striking: there was about one extra breast cancer case diagnosed for every 7690 women who used hormonal contraception for a year. It turns out they didn't, according to a massive new study.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Scientists have long known contraceptives that contain estrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Weiss added that although the increased risk is small, it is measurable, and when you consider the number of people taking hormonal birth control (approximately 140 million people worldwide, including about 16 million in the United States) it amounts to a "significant public health concern". Epidemiologist Lina Morch headed the study.
The study also found that the risk increased the longer women used contraceptives involving hormones, suggesting the relationship is causal, Mørch said.
NEIGHMOND: Hormonal contraception releases estrogen, progestin or a combination of both to suppress ovulation and prevent pregnancy.
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But this risk should be weighed against the important benefits of hormonal contraception, which is an effective method of birth control, the researchers, from the University of Copenhagen, wrote in their study.