Cancer & Birth Control: Just Give Us the Facts

Article taken from page 14 of March/April Newsletter 2018

By Cindy Pearson

Legendary journalist Barbara Seaman co-founded the NWHN in 1975, in part due to her investigations into oral contraception’s serious health risks and doctors’ refusal to take women’s complaints seriously. Her work led to Congressional hearings and sparked the revolutionary idea that patients’ have the right to accurate, helpful information about their diagnosis, conditions, treatment options, and possible risks.

In the 1970s, the Federal government funded a series of large studies to explore the Pill’s possible health risks, including breast cancer and blood clots. Early studies confirmed the Pill’s connection with blood clots, but breast cancer risks were harder to assess. The Nurses’ Health Study (a prospective study of 121,700 nurses launched in 1976) found a slightly increased risk for current and recent Pill users; other small studies found increased risks for current users.

In order for all women to have direct access to information about the Pill’s potential harms, in 1989, the NWHN asked the FDA to add a warning label about increased breast cancer risks. The FDA declined, claiming the data weren’t conclusive. So, we launched a petition asking the NIH to fund a larger study to gather more data. I presented a box full of signed petitions to the Director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and was pleasantly surprised when he said researchers wanted to do the study, but lacked funding.

We turned to Congress and educated members about the need to study this important question, and the study was eventually included in NIH funding. In 1994, the NIH launched the Women’s Contraceptive and Reproductive Experiences Study (Women’s CARE). This large, well-designed study about different doses’ possible effects included more African American women with breast cancer than any previous study, and women who could have started taking the Pill at a young age. The results, released in 2002, found the Pill didn’t increase breast cancer risks overall. But, there was preliminary evidence that using oral contraceptives at or after age 45 years might increase breast cancer risks.

Since 2002, new hormonal contraceptives have been approved, and hormone-containing IUDs are much more commonly used. Women want to know if these methods are safe or increase the risk of developing cancer.

Unfortunately, the Trump-Pence administration doesn’t value this type of research or information, and is waging war on contraception. Trump appointees’ messaging on contraception is lousy. Unreliable. Inaccurate. Downright offensive.

Administration officials lie about contraception’s health effects. Trump and Pence allowed employers to drop contraceptive coverage from employee health insurance plans. They’ve sabotaged the ACA, and may completely wipe out Federally funded family planning. The U.S., where oral contraceptives were developed and first approved, is no longer the leading source of reliable research about modern contraceptives’ health effects. Where will the next large, well-done study of contraception come from? Unless things change quickly, it will be a long time before we see results from a U.S. study on contraception and cancer.

So, we have to look overseas. In December, the results of the Danish Sex Hormone Study were published. This very large, long-term study assessed hormonal contraception’s health effects and found a small increased risk of breast cancer. We now have more facts with which to make informed decisions about our health.

We applaud the researchers who undertook this study and the many Danish government officials who support policies that made the study possible, including universal health care, comprehensive sex ed, and contraceptive access. Without those policies, we wouldn’t have the Registry or important information about hormonal contraceptives and breast cancer. Thanks, Denmark!

In the U.S., this study highlights the damage being done the Trump-Pence administration’s lies and destructive policies. While many of our usual routes to getting good research and information to women are currently stymied, we won’t give up. You can count on the NWHN to do what it takes, whether it’s testifying, petitioning, or marching in the streets. We’re determined to change things for the better.