Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?

March 11th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:

“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.

The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.

Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?

This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer.  In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action.  I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”

What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer.  Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.

It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth,  but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.

Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:

“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.

This brings us back to the Colorado nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Nuns have a substantially higher risk of reproductive cancers than women who have children, in part because of their celibacy, which means a lifetime of uninterrupted menstrual cycles. In 2011, my wife and I attended an obstetric conference in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. The keynote lecture there recommended that nuns use oral contraceptives for two or three years after taking their vows, in order to benefit from a long-term reduction in reproductive cancers to which nuns are otherwise exposed by their celibate life.”

Of course, no one would suggest nuns should give up on God and get pregnant, despite the fact that their increased risk comes from not having children or breast feeding, anymore than the father of that 11 year-old would likely encourage his daughter to have multiple children before she hits 30.

The article on which the father commented draws parallels between “birth control truthers” and “anti-vaxxers”- a point that makes some possible sense within the skewed logic of the piece. It’s clear that this stretch of understanding led the father to have such an enthusiastic reaction. Sure, if the birth control pill is a “cancer prevention” drug then surely it is a cancer vaccine of sorts – despite the fact that the FDA is strangely yet to approve oral contraceptives for prescription as cancer prevention.

 “Just like the controversy over hormonal birth control, the push to reject vaccines follows similar themes: sticking to what’s considered “natural,” avoiding what’s seen as an unnecessary medical intervention, and skepticism about what pharmaceutical companies could be hiding from the public.”

“Birth control truthers” are asked to face the apparently dire consequences of insisting on informed consent and body literacy – yet the fanaticism on this side of the debate that presents birth control pills as vaccines will also have consequences – for that 11 year-old for one, who is now heading for decades of menstrual cycle suppression.

Interestingly the word “truther” originated with the 9/11 truther movement, but is now used to refer to anyone who is skeptical of the government line on public events. Here the word is employed to describe what is understood as skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry:

“Opponents to hormonal birth control insist that someone is hiding something…A lot of the suspicion around hormonal contraception appears to be driven by skepticism about Big Pharma. Particularly when it comes to stories of women dying from blood clots — as in the NuvaRing civil suit — there’s an underlying assumption that Americans aren’t getting the whole story because the information is controlled by pharmaceutical giants.”

A confusing correlation considering that the former FDA commissioner and, I guess, fellow “truther,” David Kessler, has convincingly claimed that pharmaceutical giant Bayer purposefully withheld and buried data about the risks of their drugs to get them on the market.  

And with that I’ll end on a quote from one of the best explanations of conspiracy theorism I’ve ever read:

“We may be able to see and hear the surveillance helicopters, but they still exist.”

 

  

6 Responses to “Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?”

  1. Leslie says:

    Bravo Holly Grigg-Spall for asking the tough questions and raising the issue over the safety of synthetic birth control. Pushing birth control as a ‘cancer prevention’ contraceptive is similar to pushing the HPV vaccines as ‘cancer prevention’ drugs.

    The strategy is obviously all about the marketing of fear and not about the safety and efficacy of the product or in the health and welfare of women.

  2. Melissa says:

    We should be advocating for an economy where women can afford to have children before 30 and a society where they and their partners are emotionally mature enough. I find it strange that people still act and are considered ‘youth’ at 29.

    • Good point Melissa! I’ve argued that in my book – we socially/culturally support only the choices that require the least economic burden. No flexible hours, child care support, maternity leave – let alone reasonably paid work in comparison to cost of living – means having children later and later.

      • Melissa says:

        …or not at all, which isnt necessarily a good or bad thing. It just kind of sucks if you actually wanted kids.

        • Of course. Or not at all. I’m constantly fascinated by how many people assume I’m advocating that all women have lots of children just because I discuss alternative birth control methods – when, in fact, I’m 31, no children, no children planned.

  3. Rana says:

    I would love for this to be true ? I’ve been on the pill since i was 15, i had both my children at 22 and 27. I am now 39 almost 40 and are being told its time to come off the pill . I skip my period using the pill ( Valette) i haven’t had a period for over a year, i do this for numerous reasons
    1. Migraine control
    2. adult acne ( which causes me extreme distress)
    3.severe period cramps and bloating

    I have had no adverse reactions to avoiding the monthly build up if any thing when its weighed up i have more productive days each month than when i had a regular period.

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