Oral contraceptives provide long-term protection against endometrial cancer, according to new research published by scientists studying the beneficial side effects of birth control pills.
The study, published in the Lancet Oncology medical journal, revealed that oral contraceptive use for approximately five years can significantly impact the health of women as they age and become more susceptible to endometrial cancer.
Researchers with the Collaborative Group on Epidemiological Studies on Endometrial Cancer studied the cases of more than 27,200 women internationally to see how long oral contraceptives protected against the cancer. “The present results, taken together with what is known about past patterns of use, suggest that in high-income countries oral contraceptives have, over the past 50 years, already prevented a total of about 400,000 endometrial cancers before the age of 75 years, including 200,000 in the past decade,” the study’s authors wrote.
The protection continued even after women stopped taking oral contraceptives, regardless of pill type or estrogen dosage.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “endometrial cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the endometrium,” also known as the uterus lining.
“We’re very fortunate that endometrial cancer has an early warning sign- abnormal bleeding,” said Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. “In most cases, that bleeding is noticed by post-menopausal women and they are able to get into treatment.”
Pelvic pain is also another important symptom, as there is no uniform test for early detection, and screening is not typically done on younger women who are less affected. According to the The American Cancer Society, endometrial cancer is usually detected when concerns are addressed by a doctor with an ultrasound, sampling endometrial tissue, or blood tests, as endometrial cancer can lower red blood cell count.
Scientists are still unclear how exactly the pill prevents endometrial cancer, but relationship could significantly impact women of color.
The presences of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity—specifically stomach fat—all increase the risk of endometrial cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. As all of these diseases disproportionately affect Black women, ladies of color are also disproportionately at risk for developing endometrial cancer.
“Survival for endometrial cancer is worse for Black women- as it is for many others cancers,” Saslow told the AFRO. “When we talk about the five year survival rate, for White women it’s 81 percent- for Black women it’s 69 percent.”
Saslow attributed the higher incidence of death to “differences in access to care and access to treatment.”
Treatment for endometrial cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy or radiation.
“If you get the same treatment, you have the same survival rate,” she said, citing how female soldiers across racial lines have similar survival rates because they all have access to the same military healthcare.
Saslow says that as with any medication, the side effects and risks or oral contraceptives have to be weighed carefully, and women are encouraged to speak with a physician before beginning oral contraceptives. “Taking the pill can prevent endometrial cancer, but it can also increase the risk of blot clots,” she said.