The pill is a noisy subject. Most women have a pill story, either first or secondhand: it’s prescribed to approximately 3.5 million UK women a year, and more than 150 million worldwide. Narratives compete: for every woman who swears it leavened the misery of heavy periods or unreliable skin, there’ll be another who explains she cried for three months until, defeated, she switched to the coil. Meanwhile, in the background, there are the medical narratives: studies that posit a link between the pill and depression, or blood clots, or suggest that it might increase your likelihood of breast cancer or stroke.
There’s varied merit in each story – both the medical tales and the anecdotal – but altogether, they can make it difficult to sort the fact from the cacophony. So perhaps you missed, or deliberately swerved, this week’s version of the story. Listen up – for this one deserves close attention.
To summarise: yesterday, the University of Aberdeen published research stating that the contraceptive pill can protect women from certain types of cancer. It finds that women who have taken the pill at some point in their reproductive life, are less likely to develop bowel cancer, endometrial cancer or ovarian cancer than those who have never taken it. In real terms, the study finds that oral contraception reduces the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth, and endometrial and ovarian cancers by a third.
Cancer isn’t the only side effect associated with the Pill, and as most women know, there can be other reasons for preferring alternative methods of contraception
Firstly, crucially, this is the biggest the biggest study of its kind. Yesterday’s findings are part of the Oral Contraception Study, which was launched by the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1968, to start long-term investigation into the pill. The researchers pulled results from 46,000 women, half of them on the pill, half of them not, whom they followed over a course of 44 years.
Secondly, cancer is one of the haunting buzzwords that recurs time and again in conversations about oral contraception. Everyone will always have a different risk, dependent in part on genes and lifestyle, but the risk of breast and cervical cancer has been seen to rise temporarily for women who are on the pill (and then recede five years after you stop taking it). On the other hand, vitally, this study finds that the protection that the pill delivers against bowel, endometrial and ovarian cancers can last for up to 30 years.
The scope and history of the study is also important: wrestling with cancer of any kind requires us to work out what behaviours in our youth might be affecting our future risks. “Our study focused only on the very long term effects of the pill on cancer,” confirms Dr Lisa Iversen, the lead researcher on the project. “We did not find evidence of new cancer risks appearing later in life – the time when cancer becomes more common in women.” That’s a victory.
There are also day-to-day, smaller victories. For example, the clear, and encouraging, indication of how the pill could protect us arms doctors with better information about the pill generally – which means, in turn, that doctors can equip every woman with better information about their individual contraceptive options.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that doctors should – or will – start prescribing the pill indiscriminately. Cancer isn’t the only side effect associated with the ill, and as most women know, there can be other reasons – big or small – for preferring alternative methods of contraception: I personally spent a year forgetting to take it most days, not to mention finding that it made me weepy. Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, has emphasised that these findings are “not to advocate that women should be given the pill as a preventative measure against cancer, as we know that a minority of women do have adverse health effects as a result of taking the pill.” However, at the very least it can allay some fears – as lead researcher Iversen observes. “We believe our study findings are reassuring for women who have chosen to use the pill during their reproductive years.”
We’ll continue to worry. After all, it’s hard not to, when the conversation involves hormones and cancer. But three cheers for the researchers arming us with knowledge – better understanding liberates women.