Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Thursday, August 13, 1998 Published at 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK


The pill protects women at risk of ovarian cancer

Contraceptive pills may protect even highly vulnerable women

Even women at high risk can be protected against cancer of the ovaries if they take oral contraceptives, scientists have discovered.

Doctors have long known that the hormones in oral contraceptives cut the risk of ovarian cancer by at least 50%.

But a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that the benefits also extend to women who carry the cancer gene mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2 which make them more prone to developing tumours.

Much bigger risk

Women with BRCA1 are up to 45% more likely to develop ovarian cancer. The risk is 25% among women with BRCA2.

Doctors sometimes recommend that women carrying the genes have their ovaries surgically removed once they have finished having children.

Researchers looked at 207 women with ovarian cancer whose DNA carried either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.

Women who took an oral contraceptive for six or more years had a risk reduction of 60%.

For women who took "the pill" for three years or less, the contraceptives cut the ovarian cancer rate by 20 percent.

More research required

However the scientists warned more research was required before oral contraceptives could be recommended as a way to prevent ovary tumours.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 also increase the risk of breast cancer and it is unknown what the impact of oral contraceptives is on that risk.

In some studies, birth control pills seem to be responsible for elevating the risk of breast cancer, perhaps by 10 to 20%. But not all studies have confirmed that.

The researchers also warned that different oral contraceptives contain different combinations of hormones, and their findings do not show if one hormone mixture is better than others at preventing ovarian cancer.

They noted that surgery was still the most effective way to prevent ovariain cancer.

Never having been pregnant, eating fatty foods, taking fertility drugs and using talcum powder may also increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

'Exciting' research

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said more research was needed before firm conclusions could be drawn.

But he said the new study opened up a potentially rich avenue of investigation which could yield more details of the mechanism of ovarian cancer.

Professor McVie said: "It is really quite exciting. We have now got the technology to identify people at risk, but as yet we do not have anything to offer them."

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Health Contents

Background Briefings
Medical notes
Relevant Stories

11 Aug 98†|†Health
Blair orders pill death review

26 Jun 98†|†Health
Majority of women 'are ignorant' about the pill

19 May 98†|†Latest News
£7,500 to buy an extra year of life

Internet Links

Cancer Web

National Childbirth Trust

Cancer Research Campaign

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Disability in depth

Spotlight: Bristol inquiry

Antibiotics: A fading wonder

Mental health: An overview

Alternative medicine: A growth industry

The meningitis files

Long-term care: A special report

Aids up close

From cradle to grave

NHS reforms: A guide

NHS Performance 1999

From Special Report
NHS in crisis: Special report

British Medical Association conference '99

Royal College of Nursing conference '99