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The Pill and Premenopausal Breast Cancer: a Connection!
Dr. James Statt and Mike Phelan, July 2, 2009 (Contraception)

Most recent polls continue to find that there exists "no significant difference between Catholics and other Americans on questions involving contraception." 1 One wonders what would result from a diocese-specific poll, focusing on those dioceses with longer track records of consistent NFP offerings and requirements such as our own, but that information is not yet available. Those of us in the NFP teaching community know that when presented the beauty, truth and goodness of the Church's vision for married love, couples can respond as if oxygen has just been allowed into the room; yet the hurried pace of life, or the uninformed dismissal of NFP by a parent, friend, or health professional can stop the planted seed from growing. But what if there were evidence, as many of us have suspected simply must be forthcoming, that the widespread and profoundly unnatural use of artificial hormonal contraceptives was a major health risk? A recent study by the Mayo Clinic Proceedings indicates that this is precisely the case.

Every year in the United States, more than 47,000 women develop breast cancer before the age of 50. In the past 40 years, breast cancer rates have increased steadily, especially among younger women in more developed countries. Studies are being conducted worldwide to explore whether the increased exposure of modern women to known carcinogens (estrogen and progesterone) in contraceptives are a significant cause.

In the fall of 2006, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a peer-reviewed medical journal from the Mayo Clinic, published an original article authored by three PhDs and an M. D. that pooled the findings from 34 independent studies conducted in 17 different countries by independent research groups, all examining the possibility of a connection between combined oral contraceptive (OC) use and premenopausal breast cancer (PMBC).2

The results of their investigation showed an over-all 19 % increased risk for PMBC in women who used OCs. Among women who have had children (parous women), the risk for PMBC is 29 % higher for OC users, and that risk jumps 44% if OCs were used before first full term pregnancy. The association between OC use and PMBC risk is highest (52% increase) for parous women who used OCs for 4 or more years before first full term pregnancy.

In the extensive discussion section of their paper on this subject, the authors demonstrate admirable intellectual honesty and clarity of analysis in presenting the limitations of their paper and in explaining the conflicting results contained in some other studies published dealing with the same general subject of OC use and breast cancer, notably the 1996 Oxford study and the 2002 Women's Care Study. However, the meta-analysis nature of the Mayo study is important; ignoring a massive study such as this one is bad media and bad medicine.3

Thus far, the general news media and the medical profession seem to be ignoring the conclusions of the Mayo-published article.

In the past there have been instances of particular widely prescribed medications which were ultimately found to be very dangerous to human health and were ultimately withdrawn from all medical use. Although more studies are needed to confirm the Mayo findings, OC may be in the same category.

So what are we to do with this information? Share it! But we have to do so in a clear, gentle and charitable manner, especially when speaking with current or former OC users. Alarmism should be avoided. Risk increase is not a guarantee that a given woman will contract PMBC. OC users in the highest risk categories may well benefit from screening mammography begun before age 40. Self -breast examination begun early would be a reasonable recommendation and an annual gynecological evaluation including physical examination of the breasts should be encouraged, especially among OC users. In dealing with our NFP clients we should emphasize that we are not attempting to frighten, but rather to educate. These days in medical care, informed consent from the patient gets great emphasis and properly so! Informing our clients about the conclusions drawn from the data generated by the 34 studies in the Mayo article is right in line with true informed consent.

1 Wall Street Journal/Harris. June, 2006.

2 Full study in PDF form available at:
Mayo Clinic Proceedings PDF 8110

3 The Mayo study's importance is clear especially in light of the World Health Organization's August 2005 announcement that it now classifies oral contraceptives as "highly carcinogenic." Studies showing cancer risk increase are becoming more quite prevalent.