A case-control study conducted in South Africa provides new estimates of the risk of specific cancers of the female reproductive system associated with use of injectable and oral contraceptives.
Oral contraceptives are known to influence the risk of cancers of the female reproductive system. Evidence regarding the relationship between injectable contraceptives and these cancers is limited, especially in black South Africans, among whom injectable contraceptives are used more commonly than oral contraceptives.
Methods and Findings
We analysed data from a South African hospital-based case–control study of black females aged 18–79 y, comparing self-reported contraceptive use in patients with breast (n = 1,664), cervical (n = 2,182), ovarian (n = 182), and endometrial (n = 182) cancer, with self-reported contraceptive use in 1,492 control patients diagnosed with cancers with no known relationship to hormonal contraceptive use. We adjusted for potential confounding factors, including age, calendar year of diagnosis, education, smoking, alcohol, parity/age at first birth, and number of sexual partners. Among controls, 26% had used injectable and 20% had used oral contraceptives. For current and more recent users versus never users of oral or injectable contraceptives, the odds ratios (ORs) for breast cancer were significantly increased in users of oral and/or injectable contraceptives (OR 1.66, 95% CI 1.28–2.16, p<0.001) and separately among those exclusively using oral (1.57, 1.03–2.40, p = 0.04) and exclusively using injectable (OR 1.83, 1.31–2.55, p<0.001) contraceptives; corresponding ORs for cervical cancer were 1.38 (1.08–1.77, p = 0.01), 1.01 (0.66–1.56, p = 0.96), and 1.58 (1.16–2.15, p = 0.004). There was no significant increase in breast or cervical cancer risk among women ceasing hormonal contraceptive use ≥10 y previously (p = 0.3 and p = 0.9, respectively). For durations of use ≥5 y versus never use, the ORs of ovarian cancer were 0.60 (0.36–0.99, p = 0.04) for oral and/or injectable contraceptive use and 0.07 (0.01–0.49, p = 0.008) for injectable use exclusively; corresponding ORs for endometrial cancer were 0.44 (0.22–0.86, p = 0.02) and 0.36 (0.11–1.26, p = 0.1).
In this study, use of oral and of injectable hormonal contraceptives was associated with a transiently increased risk of breast and cervical cancer and, for long durations of use, with a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. The observed effects of injectable and of oral contraceptives on cancer risk in this study did not appear to differ substantially.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Hormonal contraceptives are among the most commonly used medications. Globally, more than 210 million women currently use either hormonal contraceptive pills or injectable contraceptives. Contraceptive pills usually contain manmade versions of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone (the combined oral contraceptive, or “pill”); most injectable hormonal contraceptives contain only manmade progesterone preparations. Hormonal contraceptives, which prevent pregnancy by disrupting the cyclical changes in estrogen and progesterone levels that prepare the body for pregnancy, have revolutionized birth control since they first became available in the early 1960s. However, it is now known that taking the pill also influences women's risk of developing cancers of the female reproductive system. Current and recent users have an increased risk of developing breast and cervical cancer (the cervix is the structure that connects the womb to the vagina) compared to never users, although this increased risk quickly disappears when women stop taking the pill. By contrast, women who have used the pill have a reduced risk of developing ovarian cancer and cancer of the womb (endometrial cancer) compared to never users that increases with the duration of pill use and persists for many years after use ceases. These effects on reproductive system cancers are thought to occur because these cancers depend on naturally occurring sex hormones for their development and growth.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the evidence that the pill influences the risk of developing cancers of the female reproductive system is extensive, much less is known about how injectable hormonal contraceptives affect cancer risk. In this hospital-based case–control study (a study that compares the characteristics of people with and without a specific condition), the researchers investigate the relationship between the use of oral and injectable hormonal contraceptives and cancers of the breast, cervix, ovary, and endometrium among black South African women. Injectable contraceptives have been used for longer in South Africa than elsewhere and are used more commonly than oral contraceptives among black South African women.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
As part of the Johannesburg Cancer Case Control Study, which recruits black patients attending Johannesburg public referral hospitals for cancer treatment, the researchers compared hormonal contraceptive use in women with breast, cervical, ovarian, or endometrial cancer with contraceptive use in women diagnosed with other cancers such as lung, colon, and rectal cancers, which are not known to be influenced by hormonal contraceptives. Among the controls, a quarter had used injectable contraceptives and a fifth had used oral contraceptives. After adjusting for other factors that might influence cancer risk such as age, smoking, and number of sexual partners, the odds ratio (OR) of breast cancer among current and recent users of oral and/or injectable contraceptives compared to never users was 1.66. That is, the risk of developing breast cancer among current and recent users of hormonal contraceptives was 1.66 times that among never users. For women using oral contraceptives exclusively or injectable contraceptives exclusively, the ORs of breast cancer were 1.57 and 1.83, respectively. There were also increases in cervical cancer risk among current and recent users of hormonal contraceptives compared to never users, but no significant increase in breast or cervical cancer risk among women who had ceased hormonal contraceptive use more than ten years previously. Finally, the use of hormonal contraceptives for more than five years reduced the risk of both ovarian and endometrial cancer.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that, among black women in South Africa, the use of oral or injectable hormonal contraceptives is associated with a transiently increased risk of breast and cervical cancer, and that extended use of these contraceptives is associated with a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. Moreover, they suggest that the effects of oral versus injectable contraceptives on cancer risk do not differ substantially, although for endometrial and ovarian cancer the small number of cases exposed to injectable contraceptives limits the accuracy of the risk estimates. Other limitations of this study include the possibility that the findings may be affected by uncontrolled confounding. That is, women who used hormonal contraceptives may have shared other unidentified characteristics that affected their cancer risk. Nevertheless, these findings provide new information about the effects of oral and injectable hormonal contraceptives on cancer risk that should help women make informed decisions about their choice of contraceptive method.
Please access these web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001182.
The US National Cancer Institute provides information on breast cancer (including personal stories from breast cancer survivors), cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer for patients and health professionals, and a fact sheet on oral contraceptives and cancer risk (in English and Spanish)
Cancer Research UK also provides information on breast cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer and information about the birth control pill and cancer risk
Eyes on the Prize, an online support group for women who have had cancers of the female reproductive system, has personal stories; further personal stories about breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer are provided by the charity Healthtalkonline