Three cheers for the miracle pill

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Birth control pills

Jon Purdy

Women now have one more reason to praise the pill.

Research recently published by the British Medical Journal revealed the oral contraceptive pill does not increase women’s chance of getting cancer and may even reduce the risk.

These findings are the result of a 36-year study launched in 1968 by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in the UK.

The average age of the 46,000 female British participants was 29 at the beginning of the study.

Approximately half the women were taking oral contraceptives, while half never used them. Since many women did not complete the full period of the study, two main data sets were analyzed.

The RCGP study discovered that within both sets of data, there was no increased threat of cancer among women using oral contraceptives. In addition, the risk of cancer was reduced among women who had taken oral contraceptives by three to 12 per cent, depending on the data set.

Dr. Barbara Lent, associate professor in the department of family medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, said this is not the first study of its kind.

“This study basically shows again that taking the pill reduces your risk of cancer of the uterus, ovaries [and] rectum,” Lent said.

“Interestingly, there was no increased risk of breast cancer in this look at women who had used the pill versus women who hadn’t.”

Overall, Lent said the main benefit of the pill " preventing pregnancy " must be the foremost.

Natasha Graham, a first-year management and organizational science student, said she would only go on the pill when she would “need it most” " not merely for the health benefits.

Katie Hoenselaar, a fourth-year medical science student, agreed. She said she would feel safe using the pill, and the benefits documented in the RCGP study are a “bonus.”

“I wouldn’t go on [the pill] solely for that reason,” Hoenselaar said.

The RCGP research noted a downside to the pill if it is used over an extended period of time. Women taking oral contraceptives for over eight years had an increased risk of cancer; in particular, cancer of the central nervous system and the cervix.

According to Dr. Lent, there is an increased risk of cancer of the cervix from using the pill " largely related to exposure to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There is a connection between pill usage, more intercourse, and subsequently more potential exposure to HPV.

“What we don’t know from the study is if this is from the pill itself or the character of women who take the pill,” Dr. Lent added.

Kebbi Hughes, a geomicrobiology PhD candidate, said there are many studies about oral contraceptives, and the results change all the time. Due to the potential health problems documented in other research, Hughes was hesitant to begin using the pill.

“I didn’t want to use [the pill], but its either have a baby or [practice] abstinence,” Hughes said.

For many women " over 300 million since the 1960s " the pill has been a necessity for birth control.

Dr. Lent stressed despite the good and bad side effects, the birth control pill prevents pregnancy and has a 99 per cent effectiveness rate when used properly.

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