Taking the combined pill slightly increases your risk of breast cancer – but within a few years of stopping, this risk disappears

  • The combined contraceptive pill (usually just called ‘the pill’) slightly increases your risk of breast cancer while taking it
  • Your risk will drop back to normal within a few years of stopping the pill
  • But breast cancer is rare in young women – so a slight increase in risk during this time means only a small number of extra cases of breast cancer

How much does the combined pill increase my risk of breast cancer?

Research shows that taking the combined contraceptive pill (which contains oestrogen and progestogen) can increase your risk of breast cancer.

This is shown in the graph below. As you can see, the older you are, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer. Taking the combined pill adds to your risk a little further, whatever your age.

We didn’t show the risk for women under 20 in the graph because it is extremely low. Only one in every million teenagers develops breast cancer.

  • In a group of 10,000 women who don’t use the combined pill, about 40 will probably develop breast cancer between the ages of 30 and 39. Find out how age affects your breast cancer risk
  • But in a group of 10,000 women who do use the combined pill for most of their 30s, about 54 will develop breast cancer between the ages of 30 and 39
  • So, using the combined pill during this time means about 14 extra cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in every 10,000 women
  • This is equivalent to about 1 extra woman in every 1,000 taking the combined pill who will develop breast cancer

It’s important to mention that breast cancer is rare in young women. Most women using the combined pill are in their late teens, twenties and early thirties. So a slight increase in breast cancer risk during this time means only a small number of extra cases of breast cancer are diagnosed.

There are many different types of combined pill. Some specific mixes of oestrogen and progestogen might have higher or lower risks than others, but there is not yet enough proof for us to be sure.

If you are worried about breast cancer and the pill, or are unsure about what type of contraception you are taking, we recommend you talk to your doctor or family planning clinic, who will give you more information and advice.

We don’t yet know whether the mini pill (also known as the progestogen-only pill, or POP), which contains progestogen only, also increases the risk of breast cancer, but there is more research looking into this. Studies are also looking into whether breast cancer risk is affected by progesterone-only pills, implants, injections, or the intra-uterine system. But until more research is done, we can’t confirm the risks.

The combined pill contains the female sex hormones oestrogen and progestogen. These hormones prevent pregnancy by stopping the ovaries from releasing eggs (ovulation). The link between the pill and breast cancer risk is not yet clear, but these hormones can increase the growth of some breast cancers, which might explain why taking the pill slightly increases the risk of breast cancer.

If you have inherited the faulty breast cancer genes BRCA1 or 2, we recommend you speak to your family history or genetics specialist if you are considering using the pill. The benefits and risks will be different for you. Our family history guide provides more information about family history and breast cancer risks.

The pill is a safe and effective method of contraception, and for many women the benefits outweigh the risks. Breast cancer is much less common in women before the menopause and taking the combined pill only slightly increases your risk.

How is our data calculated?

We base our calculations on evidence that we judge to be reliable and of most relevance to the UK population. We’d like to thank the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK for providing us with baseline data (June 2017).

Note: Our risk data has been calculated based on women using the combined pill for up to eight years. The risks are slightly higher for women using the pill for more than eight years. Some figures have been rounded up for clarity.

References

Hunter, D. J. et al. Oral contraceptive use and breast cancer: a prospective study of young women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 19, 2496–2502 (2010)

Office for National Statistics, Contraception and Sexual Health, 2008-09

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Information last reviewed: November 2017

Next review due: November 2020

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