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Pill Poses Little Cervical Cancer Risk

And women's risk gets even smaller 10 years after stopping the drug, researchers say

FRIDAY, Nov. 9 (HealthDay News) -- Women taking oral contraceptives are at a slightly increased risk for developing cervical cancer, but a decade after stopping the pill even this very small risk disappears, a new British study suggests.

However, that finding doesn't change the recommendation for women to continue getting screened for cervical cancer, experts say.

"This is good news," said lead researcher Dr. Jane Green, an epidemiologist in the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford. "We have been able to estimate the lifetime risk of cervical cancer for women on the pill and find it's really quite small," she said.

"The small increase in cervical cancer we see in women who are taking oral contraceptives starts to fall once pill use stops and has really gone away by 10 years after stopping use," Green said.

"The pill has many other benefits, including reducing the risk of other cancers, such as ovarian cancer and womb cancer," Green added.

The report is published in the Nov.10 issue of The Lancet.

In the study, Green and her colleagues from the International Collaboration of Epidemiological Studies of Cervical Cancer collected data on almost 16,600 women with cervical cancer and more than 35,500 women without cervical cancer. These women had participated in a total of 24 studies.

Green's team confirmed that the risk of cervical cancer among women who use oral contraceptives does increase over time. But this increase in risk is very small -- women who take contraceptives for five years or more have only about twice the risk compared with women who never took the pill.

In absolute terms, that means that a 20-year-old woman living in a developed country who uses an oral contraceptive for 10 years increases her odds of developing cervical cancer by age 50 from 3.8 cases per 1,000 women (without Pill use) to 4.5 per 1,000 women after using oral contraception. In less developed countries, where access to cervical cancer screening is more limited, that risk rises from 7.3 to 8.3 cases per 1,000 women, the researchers estimated.

Similar risk was seen for invasive and localized cancer and in women who have the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes about 70 percent of all cervical cancers, Green noted.

Although the risk for cervical cancer associated with the Pill is small, Green advised women to still be screened for the disease. "Screening for cervical cancer is effective," she said. "The advice is to go for regular screenings."

Eventually, Green hopes that the vaccination against the human papillomavirus will go a long way to preventing many cases of cervical cancer.

One expert agreed that the findings showed the risk for cervical cancer from oral contraceptives was very small.

"This is reassuring news for women," said Dr. Peter Sasieni, from the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and author of an accompanying journal comment. "There is really a minimal risk from oral contraceptives, and that risk disappears fairly soon when you stop taking them," he said.

"When making a decision about what from of contraception to use, women shouldn't worry about cervical cancer," Sasieni concluded. "It's not an issue," he said.

However, he believes that taking oral contraceptives is another good reason to get screened regularly for the disease. "By going for regular screenings, a women can reduce her risk by 80 percent," Sasieni said.

Another expert agreed that women shouldn't worry about the Pill and cervical cancer risk.

"I don't think women are basing their decision of which form of contraception to use on the risk for cervical cancer," said Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. "People who want to use oral contraceptives should not be alarmed over the slight increase in cervical cancer risk," she said.

However, women -- whether they take oral contraceptives or not -- should be getting regular cervical cancer screening, Saslow said.

More information

For more on cervical cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: Jane Green, M.D., Ph.D., epidemiologist, Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, U.K.; Peter Sasieni, M.D., Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, U.K.; Debbie Saslow, Ph.D., director, breast and gynecologic cancer, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; Nov. 10, 2007, The Lancet

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