Birth Control and Cancer Risk: 6 Things You Should Know

A woman considering birth control pills

Hormonal birth control methods, including the pill, come with risks and benefits. If you have concerns, it's a good idea to talk to your gynecologist.

When it comes to cancer risk, birth control sometimes gets a bad rap. “Usually when we talk about birth control and cancer, we’re talking about the pill and a possible increased risk of breast cancer,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering gynecologist Deborah Goldfrank, who cares for women with cancer and those who have a high risk of cancer.

But that’s not the full story, she says. Birth control pills and other forms of birth control can also dramatically reduce a woman’s risk of gynecologic cancers, such as ovarian cancer and endometrial (uterine) cancer. Here’s what every woman should know about birth control and cancer risk.

1. Not all birth control methods affect cancer risk.

Hormonal and even some nonhormonal birth control methods can have an impact on cancer risk, explains Dr. Goldfrank. The two most common hormonal birth control options for women are birth control pills and hormone-secreting intrauterine devices (IUDs). IUDs are small metal or plastic devices that are placed in the uterus by a gynecologist to prevent pregnancy.

The pill usually contains a combination of the hormones estrogen and progestin. Hormonal IUDs contain progestin only. The pill works by regulating a woman’s monthly cycle and preventing ovulation. Hormonal IUDs cause the cervical mucus to thicken, disrupting the path of sperm. Hormonal IUDs also cause the endometrial lining to thin. This can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall.

The approaches differ, but both the pill and hormonal IUDs are similar in that each contains synthetic hormones. These hormones might increase the risk of some gynecologic cancers while, at the same time, helping protect against others.

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2. Birth control can lower a woman’s risk of gynecologic cancer.

Both birth control pills and hormonal IUDs can significantly reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer. “Using birth control pills can actually reduce ovarian cancer risk by up to 50 percent,” says Dr. Goldfrank. “This protection appears to last for many years after stopping use.” The pill can also significantly lower the risk of endometrial cancer.

Because hormonal IUDs thin the endometrial lining, they can sometimes be used to prevent or even treat early-stage endometrial cancer. Like the pill, hormonal IUDs also appear to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

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3. The pill might cause a small increase in breast cancer. It’s unclear if hormonal IUDs do the same.

“The link between birth control pills and breast cancer has been controversial,” says Dr. Goldfrank. “Studies looking at this have gone back and forth.”

Birth control pills might increase the risk of breast cancer a small amount, especially for women who currently use or who recently used birth control pills. Any elevated risk seems to decrease over time after stopping use. 

Even less is known about the link between hormonal IUDs and breast cancer, says Dr. Goldfrank. “It’s not clear yet,” she says.

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4. The right birth control for you might depend on your age.

Dr. Goldfrank recommends that women who are taking the pill into their late 40s and 50s have a conversation with their doctor about the health risks. She points to recent data that suggests an increased risk of breast cancer among older women who are on the pill.

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5. Nonhormonal IUDs are a good option for women with breast cancer.

“Birth control pills and hormonal IUDs are generally not good options for women with hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast cancer, because they may stimulate the growth of tumor cells,” says Dr. Goldfrank. “They can also increase the risk of other health problems, including blood clots and stroke.” It’s important to talk with your oncologist if you are diagnosed with a hormone-sensitive cancer to better understand the health risks and benefits of birth control.

However, says Dr. Goldfrank, “Nonhormonal IUDs are not thought to increase cancer risk. And studies have indicated that copper IUDs might actually reduce your risk of cervical and endometrial cancer. We’re not certain why.”

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6. Women with a BRCA gene mutation or other inherited cancer risk have options.

Women who have an increased gynecologic cancer risk due to a BRCA mutation or Lynch syndrome may receive a significant cancer risk reduction from using the pill or a hormonal IUD. 

Dr. Goldfrank recommends that women with an inherited cancer risk speak with their gynecologist about the best method for them. The possible small increased risk of breast cancer that might be associated with long-term hormonal contraception use needs to be considered alongside other benefits and risk factors. 

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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

Hi I’m taking birth control pill to treat endometriosis I don’t wanna take it but the my gynecology said that the only thing to treaty right now

Dear Milagros, we’re sorry to hear you’re facing this dilemma. We recommend that you discuss your concerns with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical history and should be able to help you look at the risks and benefits of taking or not taking the Pill. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

My daughters first cousin was tested for the BRCA gene, and unfortunately she has it which now puts the reality that my daughters are at risk. We won’t know till they are tested. What percentage would you say that the pill will decrease the odds of getting ovarian or breast cancer while using the pill? Also, is there any recommended pill over another that has better results/effect for reducing the risk?

Dear Dorene, we’re sorry to hear your family is going through this. Once your daughters get tested for BRCA mutations, they should speak with an expert who is familiar with their medical histories and their test results about this. If they are interested in coming to MSK for genetic counseling and testing, they call call our Clinical Genetics Service at 646-888-4050. You can go to… for more information on our services. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you and your family.

Is it possible to take multivitamin, BCAA supplements and birth control pills together? I've been doing exercise and build muscle for 3 months. I don't want to stop what I'm doing. I start taking a birth control pill from today.

Ema, thank you for reaching out. We recommend that you discuss your concerns with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical history and should be able to help you look at the risks and benefits of taking multivitamin, BCAA supplements and birth control pills at the same time. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

I was diagnosed at age 59 with stage 2 ovarian cancer. My doctor said the tumor was endometrial in nature. I am almost 3 years cancer free. I had genetic testing and don’t have the Brca gene. My daughter is 35 years old and currently pregnant. She has been on the pill in the past, but hated the emotional side effects. Is it beneficial for her to return to the pill after delivery?

Dear Barbara, we’re glad to hear that you’re cancer free. We recommend that your daughter discuss her birth control options with her care team. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you and your family.