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Does birth control increase your risk of breast cancer?

A new study reveals a troubling link between hormonal contraception, including birth control pills and certain IUDs, and breast cancer risk.
Here's what you need to know about the link between birth control and breast cancer. Photo: ISTOCK

You’ve likely heard that birth control pills, namely the type packed with estrogen from your mother's generation, can increase the risk of breast cancer. But in more recent years, a slew of new formulations combining lower doses of estrogen with progesterone became the new norm, providing, doctors and researchers believed, a much safer option for women. 

But now, a new study has found that the current selection of low-dose hormonal contraceptive options, including certain IUDs, the patch, the Nuva ring, and implants in addition to birth control pills, also puts women at an elevated risk — an estimated 20 percent increase. 

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 1.8 million women aged 15 to 49 in Denmark over more than a decade. Researchers compared the breast cancer risk in women who used hormonal birth control versus those who used hormone-free prophylactics, like condoms, copper IUDS or diaphragms, and found that for every 100,000 women, hormonal contraception use led to 13 more breast cancer cases a year. 

Researchers found that the risk was roughly the same across hormonal contraceptive methods. For example, women with progestin-based IUD’s, the Mirena, Kyleena, Skyla and Liletta, have a 21 percent increased risk. 

But the news doesn’t necessarily mean you should flush your pack of Yasmin or schedule to have your Mirena removed. 

In an editorial accompanying the study, epidemiologist David Hunter reminded readers that “the use of oral contraceptives actually prevents more cancers than it causes,” citing evidence that it lowers the risk of ovarian, endometrial and colorectal cancers. American Cancer Society epidemiologist Mia Gauden told NPR that the risk is on par with that of certain lifestyle factors, such as obesity or consuming one or more alcoholic drinks a day.

Because the risk increases significantly with age, oncologist and breastcancer.org founder Dr. Marisa Weiss suggested to the NYTimes that women could consider switching to non-hormonal methods as they near 40 and older. Women with a family history of breast cancer should consider getting tested for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, which also elevate the risk.

Before you make any drastic decisions, it's a good idea to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or OB-GYN to discuss options.