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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Birth Control Pills take a bite out of Ovarian Cancer Risk



Who knew?  Those packs of pills you took for all those years before and between kids turn out to provide an amazing long-term health benefit.  Studies prove that a woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime is cut virtually in half by pill use for at least 5 years in her life.  I just think that's awesome.  Despite so many medical advances, there is still little or no way to predict which women will grow a cancerous tumor from their ovaries, so any news about prevention is welcome.  Hereditary ovarian cancer is not actually the most common cause despite what most people think.  Plus, it is not uncommon for women to mistake the fact that their close family member had benign cysts of the ovaries or endometriosis and not cancer.  Cancer of the cervix or having an abnormal Pap test have no bearing on ovarian disease at all.

Although oral contraceptives can have a downside or even be inadvisable for women with certain health problems, they are mostly without any significant drawbacks to daily, continuous use.  There is no need for, nor benefit of taking a "pill holiday."  Researchers feel that it is the continuous suppression of the normal ovarian cyclic function that accrues cancer risk.  The specific type of pill and dose of estrogen or progestin does not seem to make a difference.  The relationship between oral contraceptive use and breast cancer is muddy, and there are a few studies that show some increase in risk and others that show absolutely no change in overall risk.  The NIH published a nice fact-sheet on this.

For women who have a first degree relative with ovarian cancer (mother or sister), getting genetic testing for BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutation is an option.  The presence of this BRCA mutation greatly increases the risk of breast and ovarian malignancy in that woman's lifetime.  She may be recommended to have removal of both ovaries at a relatively young age (once childbearing is complete if desired) in an effort to reduce the risk.  Some of those at-risk women are placed on birth control pills until such time as they want to conceive because of the clear benefit for the rest of her life.


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