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Contraceptive pill may protect against cancer

Taking the contraceptive pill does not raise a woman's overall risk of cancer and may even reduce the risk for most women, according to a BMJ-published study

Taking the contraceptive pill does not raise a woman's overall risk of cancer and may reduce the risk of cancer for most women, according to a 36-year study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

The research did find an increased risk of cervical and central nervous system cancer in those who took the pill for more than eight years. However, those same women were had a reduced risk of ovarian cancer.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen analysed data spanning a 36-year period from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Oral Contraception Study which began in 1968. The study recruited 46,000 women, with an average age of 29. Approximately half were using oral contraceptives; the other half had never taken it.

Given the length of the study a significant number of GPs had not been able to provide updates throughout the entire study period, for example if a woman moved out of the area of their doctor.

The data
Researchers calculated the cancer risks using two sets of data as some GPs were not able to provide updates throughout the study period. One that related to cancers reported while the women remained registered with their recruiting GP and whose information was more detailed (GP observation dataset). The second main study dataset was larger and also included cancers notified by the central NHS registries after women had left their recruiting GP.

In both data sets there was no overall increased risk of cancer among pill users. When the GP observation dataset was used, women who had taken the pill at some time during their lives had a three per cent reduced risk of developing any cancer. When the larger main dataset was used, the reduction was 12 per cent, which equates to approximately one fewer case of cancer for every 2,200 women who have used the pill for a year, while three per cent equates to one fewer case of cancer for every 10,000 women.

In the main dataset women on the pill had statistically significant lower rates of large bowel/rectal, uterine body and ovarian cancer. The GP dataset also showed a reduced risk of uterine and ovarian cancer.

The Family Planning Association said the research shows that the benefits of the contraceptive pill far outweigh any risks.

"Research shows there may be a slight increased risk of developing cervical cancer from oral contraception but more needs to be done to investigate other factors such as sexual activity and smoking," said Toni Belfield, director of information at the Family Planning Association (FPA).

30th September 2008

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