Posted by: bridget | 12 September 2007

“Sick ’em, Pachyderm!”

Total Transformation sent along this lovely article about the connections (or lack thereof) between the Pill and cancer, as elucidated by a Scottish study.  It states, in pertinent part, “Taking the contraceptive pill does not increase a woman’s chance of developing cancer and could even reduce the risk of getting the killer disease, a major British medical study showed on Wednesday.” 

The study recruited 46,000 young women forty years ago (average age: 29) and followed them throughout their lives.  (Well, at least they used a longitudinal study, unlike these winners.)  About half never took the Pill; the other half had taken the Pill for at least some period of time.  The researchers controlled for age, socioeconomic status, and health habits. 

In fact, the GP observation dataset [women whose doctor provided semi-annual updates to the researchers] showed that women who had taken the pill had a 3% lower risk of developing any cancer. The other dataset [women whose general practitioners did not regularly provide updates] showed a 12% lower risk of developing any type of cancer for women who had taken the pill.

The scientists also found that women who had been taking the pill for more than eight years had a statistically significant increased risk of cancer.

Please note that many articles have happily trumpeted the 12% number, although it arises out of the worse set of data (i.e. women who have not been consistently monitored throughout the study).

The study apparently only looked at gynaecological cancers: these are defined as uterine, ovarian, tubal, endometrial, cervical, vaginal, or vulval cancers.  The cancer which is noticably missing from this list is breast cancer.  Some 34 studies have concluded that women who take the Pill before the birth of their first child are at a 44% increased risk of breast cancer.

Furthermore, the study noted that women who take the Pill for more than eight years have an increased risk (22%) of cervical, pituitary, and central nervous system cancers. (Side note: the increased risk of cervical cancer among women who had used the Pill for many years could be attributable to lifestyle choices: promiscuous women are more likely to contract HPV and more likely to get cervical cancer.) 

It is not, however, sufficient to say that the increased risk of breast, cervical, and pituitary cancers are offset by decreased risks of ovarian, endometrial, and tubal cancers: one must consider a woman’s risk factors for said cancers (the pachyderm, based on personal history, has a double to five-fold risk of breast cancer – she very much doubts that the Pill would be beneficial to her, only to her arch-nemeses), the relative fatality of each type of cancer, and the treatability of those diseases.  Furthermore, the study apparently did not compare benign cancers and malignant cancers: presumably, it would consider a four-fold decrease in benign cancer to be a sufficient offset for a doubled risk of malignant cancer.  In short, it would be helpful to compare the mortality rates of each group (which, given the data already available, should be fairly straightforward) before concluding that the Pill is ultimately beneficial. 



  1. Sadly, the headline indicates to the lay reader that they would be benefited by taking the pill just to prevent cancer.

  2. P.S. I love the new theme. Much less dark and the color works well.

  3. Thanks for all the stats. Seems like the moral is, “Never trust a headline.” When you put all that together it makes the pill look like a lousy solution.

    Great new theme, BTW!

  4. Glad that you guys like the new theme. WordPress has some good ones out now. :)

    Exactly – never trust a headline. Sigh….

  5. I like the new design.

  6. Ya know, Undereducated, you can move over to WordPress and get these nifty themes….

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