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The Real Risks of Birth Control Pills
The Real Risks of Birth Control Pills
Recently on the Dr. Oz Show, Carolyn Westhoff, MD, from Columbia University Medical Center and Judith Wolf, MD, from Banner MD Anderson Center actually recommended the birth control pill to women of all ages, and especially women over 40, claiming it could reduce cancer risk by as much as 50 percent. They focused especially on ovarian and endometrial cancers but also said it could reduce colon cancer risk by 20 percent. Westhoff recommended taking it for at least five years, saying that taking it longer would be of even greater benefit.
As a physician specializing in women’s health issues I’m strongly opposed to advising women to take synthetic hormones for most of their adult menstruating years as a means to prevent cancer. While there may be some truth to claims that the pill could play a role in preventing certain types of cancer in some women, it also appears to increase risks of other cancers, and it has many undesirable potential side effects—including some that are life-threatening.
In my practice I’ve provided thousands of women with effective alternative birth control methods, and the vast majority of women I’ve seen have wanted to avoid the pill. Some have said that when they took it their sex drive largely disappeared (often along with their own natural vaginal lubrication), and many reported numerous side effects, including bloating, weight gain, headaches and fatigue. Of course, they were also concerned about potential blood clots.
And yet here was Westhoff, on national television, saying the benefits of the pill outweighed its risks, and that none of the common side effects—such as lowered libido, headaches, breast tenderness, mood swings and menstrual spotting—should cause fear because they aren’t dangerous. But what about quality of life? There are also much healthier, less radical ways of preventing the specific cancers whose risks are mitigated by the pill—and those methods don’t share the pill’s potential to increase blood clots, breast cancer risk and risk of liver tumors.
In their book, Five to Thrive: Your Cutting-Edge Cancer Prevention Plan (Celestial Arts, 2010), naturopathic oncologist Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, and Wellness Times Publisher Karolyn A. Gazella outline countless whole-health ways to reduce cancer risk, including eating an anti-inflammatory diet, making healthy lifestyle choices and using appropriate nutritional supplements. Birth control pills are decidedly not among the recommendations for cancer prevention.
Besides the uncomfortable common side effects, the pill carries with it less common but far more serious risks. You may have heard about lawsuits against the manufacturers of Yaz and Yasmin, two types of birth control pills that caused some women to develop blood clots. The type of synthetic progesterone used in these pills specifically increases blood clot risk, but birth control pills in general can increase blood clotting factors, leading to clots that can result in strokes or even fatal embolisms.
As for the pill’s potential to increase breast cancer risk, Westhoff essentially told the audience that it doesn’t—or that there’s only a small increased risk. This is simply not the case: In 1996, researchers at the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer analyzed 54 studies conducted over a 20-year period in 25 countries and concluded that there’s a 24 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer while on the pill. Even after discontinuing the pill, women have a 16 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer for up to four years. In the five to 10 years after discontinuing the pill, risk is 9 percent increased. It’s only after 10 years that risk returns to normal.
An April 2009 study published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers Prevention had similar findings: Birth control use in women ages 20 to 45 for a year or more was associated with a 2.5-fold increased risk for triple-negative breast cancer—one of the most aggressive and least treatable forms of the disease.
Another rare but serious potential side effect is benign liver tumor. One of my patients developed a type of untreatable liver tumor known as benign nodular hyperplasia, as well as a rare condition called peliosis hepatis, in which multiple blood-filled sacs develop in the liver. The woman lives in constant fear that these sacs could rupture, resulting in potentially fatal internal bleeding. Her medical doctors attributed both of these conditions to her many years on the pill, and the science backs them up. In January 2011, the International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology published a paper stating benign liver tumors classically develop in women who are taking oral contraceptives. What’s worse, these benign liver tumors have a 4 percent risk of turning into liver cancer.
With all these risks, I strongly advise women to consider all other options before filling a prescription for oral contraceptives.
Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, is a licensed naturopathic physician, acupuncturist and author of best-selling book Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). She is the coauthor with Alex Steelsmith of Great Sex, Naturally; Every Woman’s Guide to Enhancing Her Sexuality Through the Secrets of Natural Medicine (Hay House, 2012). Dr. Steelsmith has had a busy private practice since 1993, and the Honolulu Weekly has credited her with being the best alternative practitioner for women’s health care in Honolulu. For more information, visit www.DrSteelsmith.com and www.AlexSteelsmith.com.
August 2nd, 2012