Will starting and stopping the pill increase my risk for cancer?
I have been on the pill for over a year now. Recently, I broke up with my boyfriend of two years. We still see each other, but I have not had sex since we broke up. I don't plan on having sex with anybody else. My question is, if I don't plan on having sex for a long while, should I stop the pill? I am afraid that if I decide to get back on the pill, I will have an increased risk of cancer or something like that. Is this true?
Please tell me.
— Feeling asexual
Dear Feeling asexual,
The decision to start, stop, or continue taking birth control can be difficult to navigate, especially when there’s limited scientific evidence on the potential affects you may experience. In terms of whether stopping and then starting the pill increases cancer risk, there’s no evidence to suggest that the stop-start factor alone would increase the risk of developing cancer.
As you’ve mentioned, if you’re not planning on having sex for some time, relying on a barrier method. These can include condoms, spermicides, or sponges and may be more convenient compared to taking a daily pill. Some also choose to stop taking birth control due to side effects, conflicts with other medications, or medical conditions that are affected by hormonal changes. Additionally, some may choose to stop taking birth control pills due to concerns about the increased risk of blood clots associated with its use.
On the other hand, there are also several benefits of birth control that you may want to consider in your decision-making process that go beyond pregnancy prevention. Birth control can help regulate periods and manage symptoms like cramps, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), and anemia. They can also manage conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis by balancing certain hormones to reduce symptoms.
As for your question about cancer, there are links to both decreased and increased risk of certain cancers with birth control use. While there’s no evidence for the start-stop of birth control influencing the risk of cancer, what studies do show is an increased risk of developing breast or cervical cancer while using birth control. However, limited research suggests that once you stop taking the pill, the risk should return to a level that’s consistent among the general population of non-birth control users. Conversely, birth control is also associated with a lower risk of ovarian, colorectal, and endometrial cancer. To get a full assessment of your individual risk for these cancers it may be helpful to speak with a health care provider.
If you do decide to stop taking birth control, you may experience symptoms due to the sudden change in hormone levels. These symptoms, also known as post-birth control syndrome, can include migraines, irregular periods, changes in weight, PMS, acne, increased sex drive, and hair loss. Additionally, fertility levels may take a few months to return after stopping birth control. To discuss the pros and cons of stopping birth control, it may also be helpful to speak with a health care provider. They can help you create a safe transition plan to get off the medication.
If you decide to resume taking birth control after some time, your body may need time to adjust to the change in hormone levels. Consequently, you may experience side effects similar to any you may have experienced when you first started birth control. These could include irregular bleeding, changes in your menstrual cycle, bloating, mood swings, and breast sensitivity.
All this to say, there are many factors you may choose to consider while deciding whether to continue or discontinue using birth control. Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose what’s best for your well-being! For more information about stopping birth control, feel free to check out more birth control and internal reproductive related health questions in the Go Ask Alice! archives!
Originally published Dec 01, 1994
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