Birth control pills may lower your risk for ovarian cancer

Christina S. Chu, MD
Last Modified: August 11, 2002


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
My mother died of ovarian cancer so as a precaution my gynecologist placed me on birth control pills. I am 48 and have not gone through menopause. With all the news about estrogen being a link to breast and ovarian cancer is it really a good preventive measure to be on a low dose birth control pill? 


Christina S. Chu, MD, Assistant Professor of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, responds:

Actually, taking the birth control pill may lower your risk for ovarian cancer. Women with a history of hereditary ovarian cancer due to mutations in the BRCA1 and 2 genes have a reduction in risk of developing ovarian cancer if they use oral contraceptives for long periods of time. Other studies have also detected a decreased risk for ovarian cancer in women with a family history of disease when the oral contraceptives were taken for 10 years.

The data for breast cancer is mixed. In several large studies, there has been no demonstrated increased risk for breast cancer among patients using oral contraceptives. There may be a small increased risk for patients less than age 35 who have used oral contraceptives for long periods of time, and for patients who used them at a very young age.

If you are concerned about your risk of ovarian cancer based on your family history, I would recommend you seek out a cancer risk assessment program in your community so as to better define your risks of developing breast or ovarian cancer and to consider genetic testing. Another option is to consider prophylactic removal of your ovaries, especially if future childbearing is not a concern. While prophylactic removal of the ovaries does not eliminate the chance of developing ovarian cancer (or primary peritoneal cancer which is very similar to ovarian cancer), it may decrease the chances substantially in patients at high risk.