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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Pill linked to cervical cancer risk
Long-term pill use has been highlighted
Long term use of the contraceptive pill could contribute to a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer, researchers suggest.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is known to be the cause of most cases of the cancer.

But researchers from Cancer Research UK found the longer a woman took the Pill for, the greater her risk of developing cervical cancer.

They said the pattern remained the same even when other factors, such as HPV infection, smoking and number of sexual partners were taken into account.

The Pill is highly effective in preventing pregnancy and reduces the risk of both cancer of the ovaries and womb
Anne Weyman, Family Planning Association
They said the use of hormonal contraceptives could be a factor in women developing the disease.

But they stressed more research was needed to show if women remain at an increased risk of cervical cancer after they have stopped taking the Pill.

And they say it is vitally important women continue to be screened for cervical cancer, whether or not they take the Pill.

Around 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the UK.

Implications

Researchers from Cancer Research UK's epidemiology unit in Oxford and the international agency for research on cancer reviewed 28 studies, covering around 12,500 women, which had looked at Pill use and cervical cancer.

They found that compared with women who had never used the Pill, women had a 10% increased risk of cervical cancer if they had taken the Pill for less than five years, 60% for five to nine years' use and double the risk if they had taken it for 10 years or more.

Dr Amy Berrington, from the Cancer Research UK epidemiology unit at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, says: "This study shows that use of hormonal contraceptives for long periods of time may increase the risk of cervical cancer.

"However, the public health implications of these findings largely depend on whether this risk remains long after use of hormonal contraceptives has stopped and this cannot be properly evaluated from published data.

"There is some evidence to suggest that the risk may drop after women stop using the pill but further research is needed to confirm this."

Dr Lesley Walker, director of information at Cancer Research UK said: "Previous studies have shown that the pill may increase the risk of breast cancer and lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

"Now the new data suggests that it could raise the risk of cervical cancer. It's vitally important that we continue to gather all the information we can on cancer risk and the pill so women can make fully informed choices about contraception."

'Low risk'

But Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said the benefits of taking the Pill outweighed the risks for most women.

She said: "The Pill is highly effective in preventing pregnancy and reduces the risk of both cancer of the ovaries and womb.

"These findings suggest that the longer a woman uses the pill, the greater her risk of developing cervical cancer, but the UK's national cervical screening programme means the absolute risk of developing cervical cancer remains very low."

Tracy Williams, senior cancer information nurse for CancerBACUP, said: "The results are being looked at again and only then will we have a more accurate picture.

" If use of oral contraceptives does increase the risk, the cervical screening programme should detect any abnormalities and lead to early treatment.

"It is crucial that all women are encouraged to have regular smear tests."


Have something to say about this? Use the form at the bottom of the page to send us your comments.

Your comments:

The "Pill" is a cocktail of steroids which causes drug-induced infertility, but will potentially influence the behaviour of every cell in a woman's body. When originally developed it was primarily intended for the use of older, physically mature women who wanted to restrict the subsequent growth of the families they had already had. However, now it is being used by large numbers of younger, physically less mature women, who have never had children, for five, ten, even twenty years or more.

Unlike other drugs, which are typically used to treat disease, the Pill is used to cause disease, i.e., infertility, in normal, healthy women.
Unlike other drugs, the Pill has not, for understandable reasons, been subject to long term placebo-controlled trials prior to its use by many thousands, even millions of young healthy women.

Although scientifically difficult to prove (or disprove for that matter), I would not be surprised to discover that such powerful and indiscriminate drugs used for very long periods of time, with the explicit objective of causing complete infertility in otherwise healthy women, may have longer term effects such as an increased risk of cancer or a reduction in subsequent fertility?
Dr Gavin Jarvis, Department of Pharmacology, Oxford Oxford, UK

This information is shocking for someone who has been taking the pill for 20 years
Deb Phillips, UK
This information is shocking for someone who has been taking the pill for 20 years with one break to have a child. First reaction is to stop taking it now, but without information on whether it will bring down the risks I'm at a loss. All this information has done is worry a very large number of women. Why hasn't proper research on this been done years ago?
Deb Phillips, UK

Yet another piece of "Research" scaring women.
Jenni McKean, England

I had been on the pill for many years and decided to take a break for a while. When I came of the pill I had irregular periods for about 6 months. In that time I attended my doctors for a cervical smear test. This test came back with abnormalities and I was sent to the colposcomy unit at the local hospital. After a lot of visits back and forth they decided that whatever it was had gone. I had told them that it was due to me coming off the pill but they said "NO NO, it can't be that!" Now I'm sorry this just goes to show how wrong they are. I am not back on the pill but am now very concerned about this.
Michelle Kay, United Kingdom

Surely all these risks associated with the pill are too much. All the advances science has made and yet the most reliable method of contraception is effectively a life/death roulette wheel for women. Is this because women's lives are cheap and we merely are receptacles of men's sperm and baby carriers but have no value or worth in our own right? Otherwise something would have been done or invented by now. Witness the quick invention of Femidon when men didn't like to wear condoms even though the threat of Aids was a real possibility.
Sue K, UK

I think the use of statistics in your article is misleading and irresponsible. You make the risk of getting cervical cancer from taking the pill seem huge by using percentages, you should say the risk is (I don't know exact figures) say 1 in 100, but by taking the pill for 10 years goes to just over 2 in 100.
The way your article is written will scare women and if they get pregnant because they come off the pill more damage could be done to them if they kept or got rid of the foetus.
Sarah Snee, England

Headlines that state pill use is linked to cervical cancer risk may result in women stopping taking their pill and therefore, possibly resulting in unwanted pregnancies
Helen Jones, Britain
I am a youth worker who has worked for some years in young people's sexual health settings. Although I am not a clinical practitioner I have a good understanding of some of the issues experienced by women who use the contraceptive pill. As some cases of cervical cancer is linked to HPV. It is possible to suggest then that the pill may not be the source of cervical cancer but having sex without a condom. It is well known that condom use provides protection for the cervix. Therefore, it could be stated that the use of oral contraceptives often means that women who are having sex with men may not see the need to use condoms in order to prevent pregnancy. What we need to be doing, then, is promoting the "double Dutch" method of contraception. That is using condoms as well as the pill in order to provide additional protection. Headlines that state pill use is linked to cervical cancer risk may result in women stopping taking their pill and therefore, possibly resulting in unwanted pregnancies etc
Helen Jones, Britain

Yet another medical scare story aimed specifically at women that will probably result in a rise in pregnancies and STDs.
I write this from Berkshire where, if I wish to have a smear test every 3 years as recommended, I have to pay for it. I'd like to see less money spent on scare-mongering and more spent on proper screening for all.
Catherine O, UK

I came off the pill a year ago as I hoped to try for a family. I had been on the pill for over 10 years and now appear to have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) which may have been masked by being on the pill. This means that I may need fertility treatment in order to get pregnant, which seems a bit ironic considering I took the pill for all those years to prevent pregnancy. I was never given any guidance on the length of time to remain on the pill, and my GP knew I'd been taking it since the age of 18.
I have regular smear tests as they did find some abnormalities with the test but I don't have cancer as yet.
I would recommend that people seek advice from their GP and look at alternative contraceptive methods, and go for smears tests every 6 months.
Alex, Scotland

So, it increases the risk of cervical cancer but reduces the risk of ovarian and womb cancer. Then again the story here didn't say if the women in the study had more unprotected sex due to being on the pill which might lead to more cases of cancer due to HPV. Poor statistics so far┐
Doug, UK

I am 19 years old and have recently started using the pill. I was shocked by the lack of knowledge the doctor who prescribed the pill had about prolonged usage. I pressed him about the risks of cervical cancer, breast cancer, future implications of fertility, etc, but he assured me that it was perfectly safe and that I should not worry. I believe that studies such as these should be taken very seriously and more importantly that their results should be broadcast to a wider public audience, who need to be more aware of the risks of cancer and preventative measures.
Amy, London

I'm far more worried about the way these findings are reported than the actual findings. What is the percentage chance of a woman contracting cervical cancer at some point in her life if she does not take the pill? If it is, say, 1 in 10,000 then even a 100% increase (double) is still only 2 in 10,000. I.e. still a very small number. I will wait for more REAL INFORMATION before making any decisions. I get very annoyed by 'scare' reporting!
Sian, UK

There are a lot of scare stories around about the pill. I think that the benefits of taking the pill do outweigh the potential risks. It is important to inform people of potential risks but not so as to create unreasonable anxiety.
Shiromi Seneviratne-walker, England

Regular screening can detect cervical and breast cancer at an early stage - ovarian cancer is another matter and there are no effective screening processes for it.
Therefore, if ovarian cancer risk is reduced at the price of an increase in the cervical and breast cancer, its no bad thing so long as women do the sensible thing and be screened.
CJ, UK

I'm surprised by this news report. I find it hard to believe this was not known here. My doctor has been telling me for years that use of the pill increases the risk of cervical cancer. However it also *decreases* the risk of ovarian cancer - and since there is no method of early detection for this, on balance I decided the risk was worth taking. I hope this report doesn't panic women into changing their birth-control unnecessarily.
Nicola, UK

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WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Gill Higgins
"For most the benefits will still outweigh the risks"



SEE ALSO:
Pill alert for cancer risk women
04 Dec 02  |  Health
Pill may boost fertility
26 Sep 02  |  Health
Virus peril of changing partners
19 Jun 01  |  Health
Wartime peaks of 'sexual' cancer
29 Mar 01  |  Health


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