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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 00:02 GMT
Pill alert for cancer risk women
Contraceptive pill
The study looked at 2,600 women on the Pill
Women at high risk of breast cancer increase their chances of developing the disease by taking the contraceptive pill, research suggests.

An international study has found that women who are genetically susceptible to the disease may put themselves at further risk by taking the Pill.

Researchers said oral contraceptives increased the chances of breast cancer by one third in women with mutations in the BRCA1 gene.


It's worth bearing in mind that the pill decreases the risk of ovarian cancer in BRCA1 mutation carriers

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK
This gene has previously been linked to breast cancer. Women with BRCA1 mutations account for 5% of all breast cancer cases.

These women already have at least a 50% chance of developing the disease over the course of their life.

The latest findings are based on a study of more than 2,600 women in 11 countries.

Half of these women were genetically susceptible to breast cancer, carrying mutations in either the BRCA1 gene or BRCA2, which has also been linked to the disease.

Dr Steven Narod and colleagues at the University of Toronto examined the medical history of women in both groups.

They found that women with BRCA1 mutations who had taken oral contraceptives for at least five years were 33% more likely to develop breast cancer compared to those who had never taken the Pill.

'Genetic testing'

They were also more likely to develop the disease if they went on the Pill before they were 30 or who used oral contraceptives before 1975.

The doctors suggested this may be because older generation pills were based on different formulations.

However, the study also showed variations in risks depending on where the women lived. Women in North America and Israel appeared most at risk, compared to those living in the UK and Europe.

The doctors said they were unable to explain these differences, although they didn't study the formulations used in each of the 11 countries.

However, overall the study found that the risks associated with the BRCA1 gene did not apply to those with a mutation in the BRCA2 gene.

They suggested further study was needed to ensure this was indeed the case.

Contraceptive advice

Nevertheless, the doctors said the findings suggested that women under the age of 30 with a mutated BRCA1 gene should not take oral contraceptives.

Writing in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, they said: "It is also important that the woman's age be considered if an oral contraceptive is to be prescribed.

"In particular, it appears that oral contraceptive use after age 30 is not likely to increase the risk of breast cancer among BRCA1 mutation carriers."

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information for Cancer Research UK, welcomed the study.

"This research is important because it is the first to include large numbers of women with BRCA1 mutations.

"While it's always difficult to give advice to women on the basis of a single study, this research provides useful information to allow women to plan their contraception and make choices about ways of preventing cancer.

Carriers

"It's worth bearing in mind that the pill decreases the risk of ovarian cancer in BRCA1 mutation carriers."

Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, added: "This research highlights the need for women with a strong family history of breast cancer to be given clear advice about the pros and cons of taking the pill in relation to their own risk of developing the disease, in order to make an informed choice."

She added: "Women with a strong family history of breast cancer may benefit if they knew whether or not they were a BRCA 1 or 2 carrier.

"Therefore there is a clear need for improvements in existing genetic testing services should women wish to be tested."

See also:

28 Nov 02 | Health
21 Nov 02 | Health
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