Just Facts: Will the Pill Give Me Cancer?


RH Reality Check is partnering with Planned Parenthood of New York City to provide evidence-based information on the contraceptive methods.  The first article in this series was “Will the Pill Make Me Fat?”  See also the feature article by Kirsten Moore and Aimee Thorne-Thompsen examining the case for over-the-counter access to the contraceptive pill.

Will the pill give you cancer?

No.

Yet no matter how many studies have debunked this myth, it’s one that still persists. A friend of a friend’s mom’s cousin told you they’d once heard about a study that said that the birth control pill could give you cancer. Or you read somewhere online that there was one test that showed inconclusive results. Whatever the source, this untruth is like a little worm that tends to linger in the back of people’s minds. So let’s clarify once and for all: the birth control pill does not, in any way, shape, or form, cause cancer. There has not been evidence-based research that has shown otherwise.

Back to basics.

As we’ve mentioned before, the birth control pill is one of the most widely used forms of contraception. So is it any wonder that there are so many misconceptions about it? Before we talk about what the pill doesn’t do, let’s go over what it does. 

The birth control pill is an oral hormonal contraceptive that’s taken daily. While there are many different brand name and generic versions of the Pill, they all basically work the same way.  Made up of estrogen, progesterone, or a mix of both, these hormones suppress ovulation, ensuring that a woman’s ovaries won’t release eggs. And they thicken a woman’s cervical mucus, thus blocking sperm from getting past the cervix. Even though birth control pills all work the same way, that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. They have different mixes and levels of hormones. Some may even include extras, like iron supplements. Because of this they affect us all differently – meaning the side effects you get with one pill may disappear once you change brands. Often finding the right birth control is a process – trying different brands until you find one that mixes well with your body’s chemistry.

And now, what about the pill and cancer?

We can’t say it enough, so we’ll say it again. The Pill does not cause cancer. There has never been an evidence-based study that showed otherwise. In fact, the hormones in the Pill have actually been proven to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer when taken long term.

So where does this myth come from?

A big factor is the anti-choice movement. In its crusade against reproductive rights, the American Life League has promoted the “Pill Kills” campaign, aimed at convincing women that the birth control pill is not something worth taking for a number of unverified quasi-medical and spiritual reasons, including cancer. While these anti-choice opponents of the pill are generally not taken seriously because their claims’ lack medical evidence, their protests and literature have drawn attention over the years. Another possibility is the nature of the hormones contained in the birth control pill. There have never been studies showing that either estrogen or progesterone can cause cancer. However, if a woman already has cancer, some studies have shown that these hormones can increase the rate at which a tumor grows. This does not always happen, and to be clear, a tumor must already exist for there to be any chance of the hormones having an effect at all. But because of this, if you have already been diagnosed with cancer you should not take the Pill – or at least you should consult your health care provider before doing so.

One last time: there is absolutely no evidence that the birth control pill causes cancer. In fact, many studies have shown that the birth control pill decreases your risk for certain kinds of ovarian and cervical cancer.

Of course, as always, we’re not giving anyone medical advice. Making good decisions about sexual health and birth control is vastly different for each person. That means that no matter how much what we have to say rings true, you should always discuss these topics with your health care provider to figure out what works best for your health, body, and lifestyle.

But, no, birth control does not cause cancer!

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • halli620

    For most women, this is true. However, to be so black and white and rabid in any direction is nearly as irresponsible as the fear-mongering sides that want to change behavior with scare tactics and untruths. I don’t have research to post here at the moment, but I’ve done more than a little on this topic, and the general consensus among trustworthy sources is that for a small segment of women, mainly those with a genetic disposition for estrogen-receptive breast cancer (usually evident in a strong family history of breast cancer, and now with genetic testing), the pill can increase the risk of cancer somewhat. No, it’s not “proven” beyond a shadow of a doubt, but neither is it proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no increased risk for these women. The bottom line is that if you have a family history of breast cancer and/or have had genetic testing revealing the breast cancer gene, do your research, talk to your doctor about possible risks, and decide for yourself what the best way to go is.

  • twiggy

    Very good article.  There are a lot of myths out there that people believe because they “heard it somewhere”.  There are still people who beieve that a surgical abortion can raise the chance of breast cancer. If articles like this can reach the mainstream, lets hope this can help debunk the myth of oral contraception and cancer.