I have read in the papers about some new research that suggests women who take the contraceptive pill have a 60% risk of getting cervical cancer. This seems very high, is it true?

It is true that using the pill may increase your risk. But the risk isn’t anything like 60%. That would mean 60 out of every 100 women and cervical cancer only affects about 9 in every 1,000 women.

A paper published in a medical journal called The Lancet in 2003 reviewed a number of studies looking into pill use and cervical cancer risk. This paper combined data from 24 countries involving 12,500 women. It showed that the use of hormonal contraceptives for long periods of time can increase the risk of cervical cancer. It is not clear why this is.

We did think that the pill was statistically linked to cervical cancer only because women on the pill are more likely to be sexually active. So they are more at risk of picking up HPV infection. They do not necessarily use barrier contraception (condom or cap), which could prevent them from picking up HPV. But now it seems that the pill may actually affect risk directly.

In this analysis, the researchers took account of other factors such as number of partners, smoking and most importantly, infection with human papilloma virus (HPV).

Remember – the increases in risk are small. And more importantly, if you have regular cervical screening, any increase in risk is cancelled out.

About 9 in every 1,000 women who have never taken the pill will get cervical cancer at some point in their lives. The recent research suggests that amongst women who have taken the pill for 5 years, about 10 in every 1,000 will get cervical cancer.

The increased risk for between 5 and 9 years is slightly greater, but is still a small increase in real terms. About 14 in every 1,000 women who’ve been on the pill for between 5 and 9 years will get cervical cancer. Remember, this is compared to a risk of 9 in 1,000 for women who haven’t used the pill. (Incidentally, if 9 is increased by 60%, you get 14, which is where the 60% figure comes from.)

For more than 10 years pill use, the increase in risk is doubled when compared to women who have never taken the pill. But that still only means 18 women in every 1,000 who’ve taken the pill for more than 10 years are at risk of cervical cancer.

The authors of the study did stress that further research is needed to see if the risk of cervical cancer drops after women stop using the pill. They also emphasised the importance of regular cervical screening for all women, whether or not they use the pill.

Persistent infection with some types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is still the highest risk factor for the development of cervical cancer. But it is important to be aware that the majority of women who have this infection will not develop cervical cancer. Whether women infected with HPV go on to develop cervical cancer is affected by other factors, and one of these could be the use of the contraceptive pill. The important thing to remember is that regular screening will pick up changes in the cervix before a full blown cancer can develop. Obviously, this is now even more important for women on the pill.

For more info visit ~ http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/help/default.asp?page=5482

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