The birth control pill has prevented hundreds of thousands of cases of endometrial cancer, and can help reduce women’s risk of developing cancer even long after they stop using it, according to a new research that analyzes data collected between 1965 to 2014.
Endometrial cancer — sometimes also called “cancer of the womb” — begins in the inner lining of the uterus. Mainly affecting older women who have gone through menopause, it’s the most common gynecologic cancer in the United States. An estimated 10,000 American women will die from this condition in 2015.
But the statistics would be much worse without the pill, according to research published this week in the prestigious Lancet journal. After examining data from 36 different studies conducted in several high-income countries around the world, researchers from the University of Oxford concluded that taking birth control pills for just five years can reduce a woman’s risk of developing this type of cancer by 25 percent. They estimate oral contraceptives have prevented about 400,000 cases of endometrial cancer since 1965 — including 200,000 cases in the last decade alone.
“People used to worry that the pill might cause cancer, but in the long term, the pill reduces the risk of getting cancer,” the study’s lead author, Valerie Beral, who directs the cancer epidemiology unit at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
Previous studies have also suggested that taking birth control may be linked to endometrial cancer prevention. But Beral’s most significant finding is related to the potential long-term benefits of using the pill: Her team found that the protective effect persists for at least 30 years even after women stop taking oral contraception.
“The strongest effect of the pill is to protect against pregnancy,” Beral continued. “But now young women should be told that not only is it a good pregnancy preventive, but in the long term you’re less likely to get cancer than those who haven’t taken it.”
Despite the fact that hormonal contraception has been legal for decades, it often becomes entangled in contentious political debates. Particularly after the health care reform law started requiring employers to offer coverage for all FDA-approved methods of contraception without charging an additional co-pay, religious conservatives dug in their heels against certain forms of birth control. Thanks to ongoing debates over abortion and Planned Parenthood, women’s access to family planning services has been thrown into question.
There are real consequences to this political atmosphere. Medical experts argue that these debates over contraception ultimately obscure birth control’s potential to save lives.
“Birth control, as a core component of family planning, is one of the most important public health success stories of our generation,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told ThinkProgress earlier this year. “We politicize it way too much and underemphasize its enormous benefits.”
In addition to potential cancer prevention, a large body of research has linked contraception to other positive outcomes for women of childbearing age. Birth control reduces unintended pregnancies, helps women space their childbearing, leads to healthier babies, and gives women more control over the economic course of their lives.