The pill: worth the risk?

The pill has been classified as ‘carcinogenic to humans’, so why are 28% of women still on it? investigates

The pill is the most popular form of contraception in the UK and, if used correctly, is 99% effective. 28% of women aged 16-49 use it. It comprises of artificial sex hormones related to oestrogen and progesterone (sometimes progesterone alone; the mini pill). The pill completely changes the behaviour of a woman’s cycle, suppressing fluctuations and stopping ovulation entirely.

Typically, girls are told the pill is the best form of contraception. But recently GPs have noticed a rise in women requesting other types of contraception.
“The pill made me crazy, I became really irrational and paranoid. It also put a huge strain on my relationship. At the end of the day, it just wasn’t worth it,” says Meredith*.

Weight gain and skin problems are often the primary concerns of women considering the pill.

However, if you read the small print on the drug websites or the leaflets provided with pill packets, there is a plethora of alarming warnings concerning vomiting, jaundice, migraines, fatigue, urinary tract infections, cystitis, eczema, acne, mouth ulcers and varicose veins. We tend not to read the miniscule writing on medical pamphlets and if we do, we tend to think, “it won’t happen to me”.

While the NHS website admits there may be “minor side effects including mood swings, breast tenderness and headaches”, there are many more to add to this list, including an increased risk of breast cancer.

In July 2005, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the pill as “carcinogenic to humans”, placed in the same category as tobacco and asbestos leading to increasing numbers of women seeking an alternative method.

Indeed, the pill’s construction was not without flaws. The first oral contraceptive to become commercially available was Enovid. The US Food and Drug Administration approved it on the basis of a small clinical study involving 132 Puerto Rican women who took the pill for a year. During this time, three of these women, who were all young and fertile, died after severe chest pains. They were eliminated from the study. A year after its release, Enovid had caused many cases of thrombosis and embolism in women, including 11 deaths. Nearly 40 years later, women still suffer chronic side effects which remain largely ignored by many doctors.

During a clinical study of the first oral conceptive, three women, all young and fertile, died after severe chest pains

“I wasn’t really given an option. My doctor completely deterred me from any other options,” Meredith explains.

Natasha* continues: “It took me four years to realise that it was the pill behind my problems.” She noticed distressing changes to her body after taking ‘Yasmin,’ a brand of oral contraceptive frequently used amongst women in the UK. “I would get sharp, stabbing chest pains and migraines. I’d never suffered from migraines before. When I told my doctor, he said it was definitely nothing to do with the pill.”

“I even had an MRI scan to see what was causing my migraines, but they found nothing. I’ve put up with terrible mood swings, absolute loss of libido and dizziness.”

Natasha became a member of ‘Yasmin survivors’, an online forum discussing serious health problems related to the contraceptive, including severe anxiety attacks, blurred vision and blood clots.

Interestingly, when Yasmin became available, it was hailed as a break-through drug for young women, completely devoid of side-effects. The brand currently has over 300 lawsuits pending against it in the USA.

Last year the manufacturer, Bayer (who also manufacture the contraceptive ‘Yaz’), was forced to run a $20 million corrective advertising campaign. They had previously made false claims about the drug on TV adverts in the USA saying it helped skin problems and pre-menstrual depression. In 2008, the Yaz franchise made sales of $1.8 billion worldwide.

Research has shown at least 150 bodily functions are altered by the pill. The decline in women’s testosterone, resulting from oral contraceptives, is often believed to be the cause of libido loss and mood disorders.

Amongst physical and psychological side effects, there is nutritional damage. The alteration in hormonal behaviour disrupts your body’s normal ability to process vitamins; crucial in maintaining health. The absorption of vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B12 is interrupted by the pill. This can lead to deficiency, causing fatigue, insomnia, low stress tolerance, and depression. Reduced zinc and increased copper levels can also knock your body out of its normal balance and may cause irritability, high blood pressure and sugar cravings.

On the NHS website it states: “Because you don’t ovulate when you take the combined pill, you don’t have a real period every month. Instead, you get a withdrawal bleed.”

But is it really beneficial that women consume a pill that stops what their bodies are biologically designed to do? Hilary Lewin, a doula and body therapist who meets many women suffering from menstrual difficulties, explains the role of a period: “The uterus is used as ‘a dumping ground’ by the body. If the body stores toxins in the uterus then each month we ‘clean out’. It seems that if a woman is not properly menstruating, the uterus can become ‘toxic’ and create problems.”

Alexandra Pope, co-author of The Pill: Are You Sure It’s For You? says that “switching off your menstrual cycle is as crazy as the doctor telling you not to waste time sleeping and to take drugs to keep you awake 24/7. All systems and living things need a cycle. Just as we need sleep on a regular basis, our bodies need time out to rest.”

With this in mind, the natural question is what other options are avalible. Pope believes that all girls should be fitted with a diaphragm and most GPs promote the implant, injection, vaginal ring and IUD, all more forms of hormonal contraception.

Pope also believes young girls entering puberty and sexual activity should be encouraged to embrace self knowledge.

The Natural Fertility Awareness method involves charting your menstrual cycle and calculating when you will not be at risk of getting pregnant. While this age-old method is completely natural, it is also very easy to get wrong and there is little widespread knowledge about it.

Jessica* hadn’t heard of the natural awareness method. “A lot of my friends are considering getting the copper coil. The insertion is a bit grim but, once it’s in place, it can stay for ten years. Also, there are no hormones at all. It seems like a better option.”

The Intrauterine Contraceptive Coil (IUCD) involves inserting a T-shaped structure into the womb via the cervix. The coil prevents the sperm from being able to enter the uterus and, if one does, makes the womb inhospitable to prevent the fertilised egg from being able to implant and develop properly.

All methods of contraception come with risks. Interestingly, one NHS nurse commented: “Every so often there’s a health scare about the pill and everyone comes off it. Then, there’s a massive baby boom. It’s your choice, girls.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities. M

10 comments

  1. Some of the research presented in this article is interesting and I agree that potential side effects should be paid more attention. However, only Yasmin is discussed, when the most common contraceptive pill in the UK is Microgynon. The 28% statistic does not specify if this represents the usage of all contraceptive pills or a particular type. Also, there seems to be a bias against the pill, where no positive experiences or those without side effects are presented. The regular health checks conducted at regular intervals when a woman begins using the pill are also not mentioned.

    The facts may not be innaccurate but the presentation makes the article unnecessarily distressing.

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  2. this is ridiculous; the doctor spent half an hour telling me of all the risks associated with the pill and typically the first recommended contraception device is the coil. Also, the pill comes with a little booklet that I read (no small print, graphs demonstrating increased rate of cancers at a ridiculously small increase). I know of friends who were prescribed the pill to deal with acne (successfully) because it evens out the hormones.

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  3. This isn’t much more than scaremongering.

    “All methods of contraception come with risks.”… But let’s make sure we’re as biased as possible and mention only those related to the contraceptive pill.

    Those individual stories of ‘very bad reactions to the pill’ are useless information, too. Considering the amount of people who take it, this is bound to happen to a few people. You don’t blame peanut butter for anaphylactic shocks either.

    “We tend not to read the miniscule writing on medical pamphlets and if we do, we tend to think, “it won’t happen to me”.”
    I read them. And of course I think ‘it won’t happen to me’, that’s what you call not being paranoid. It’s unlikely that you’ll get a side-effect and if you do, go see your GP, that’s what they’re there for.

    And it’s not like other alternatives are perfect. Hell, even abstinence has the ‘side-effect’ of not giving you the added ‘work-out’ of having sex. IUDs make your periods heavier, longer and more painful. And they’re harder to insert in young women who have not yet had children. Other forms of contraception have still other side-effects. Either look at the data to make up your mind or if you don’t understand it then ask your GP and s/he’ll do the thinking for you.

    Next, cancer… I’m surprised you didn’t mention that several studies show reduced ovarian and endometrial cancer risks from taking the pill for 5 years or more. As for breast cancer, yes, in 1996 there was a re-analysis of 54 studies involving 150,000 women that showed a small increase in the risk of breast cancer. However, “There is no evidence of an increase in the risk of having breast cancer diagnosed 10 or more years after cessation of use [of the pill], and the cancers diagnosed then are less advanced clinically than the cancers diagnosed in never-users.”. So probably because you go to your GP/gynaecologist regularly for the pill, you’re more likely to get an early diagnosis while you’re there too.

    Never, ever, mention toxins (or interview someone who will) in a science-y article if you want to be taken seriously. A doula/body therapist (two unprotected terms) is not the person to ask for advice on this. “The uterus is used as ‘a dumping ground’” is not only dumb, but probably quite insulting too.

    If only one person, after reading this, decides to stop using the pill for one of the unjustified reasons you mentioned and then gets pregnant, or suffers worse side-effects from their new medication, we’ll know who to blame. You should be ashamed…

    And please, if you don’t understand science, don’t write about it.

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  4. 26 Feb ’10 at 7:09 pm

    There's only sterillization left.

    What pants! The coils generally contain hormones (progesterone only or both) that are gradually released into your womb, it’s thouroughly innappropriate for a woman who hasn’t given birth, they can become implanted in the lining of your womb, the injections last for about three months so any negative side-effects will be waited out until then, and calculating your calender is impractical and dangerous. For goodness sakes, everyone knows there are side-effects to the pill: you’re putting extra hormones in, of course there will be. Generally, these go away after a few months, and many women don’t find them too much of an inconvenience anyway. There is the slightest of links between the pill and breast cancer, and it is in no way a “carcinogenic”. What a ridiculously under-research, hyperbolic piece.

    Female students of campus, I’m sure, will turn to a GP for contraceptive advice. It’s not as if you’re managed to break an amazing story about how the pill actually makes you pregnant, or gives you horns. You’ve taken silly quotes from a few places, and seem to have an agenda against a particular pill. What’s happening with Nouse all of a sudden? If there isn’t anything news worthy, keep schtum. This is painful.

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    • WOW you do it all. Yesterday I was in with my ob and having him write rx’s for partenal vitamins and folic acid cause it can be written off my flex spending account. He had very little idea of what I was talking about! I told him I dumped 5k in dependent care and 5k into health flex spending and it was tax free. He was like huh? He thought it was insurance. Go figure. Told him it was very much worth it, plus lowers my taxable income by 10k. I let it go that he thought it was insurance. Seeing I have a separate insurance plan that was listed right on top of my file.

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  5. I think its important to mention that the pill is unsuitable for some women as it is often the first contraception method offered. Of course it does depend on your GP, if you have a good GP they will talk you through all your options and the risk associated with the various methods of contraception, but not all GPs are good, mine certainly did not talk me through the risks of the pill.

    I went on the pill (dianette then microgynon) when I was 14 and I wish that I hadn’t. I developed severe depression, self-harmed, contemplated suicide and becaming bulimic during my time on the pill. To put it mildly my metal health was not good. These symptoms developed gradually after I started taking the pill and I didn’t know that depression can be a side effect of the pill so I didn’t associate the two. I stopped taking the pill when I was 18 and my depression lifted within a fortnight. I wasn’t expecting any change in my mood, because i still didn’t realise what was causing my depression. I felt ‘normal’ for the first time in years and the depression has not come back since. I have no doubt that it was because I was taking the pill and am going to avoid hormonal contraception for the rest of my life; clearly they don’t agree with me. I may get an IUD (copper coil, the one with no hormones) at some point, but for now I’m sticking with condoms.

    My experience is not representative of women in general, I know that. Some women find the pill to be a good contraception method and don’t suffer side effects. Other women do get serious side effects, these things need to be discussed so women can make informed choices.

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  6. Oxygen is a carcinogen.

    100% of people still breath.

    Shut up.

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  7. Great idea. My only question, and it’s not ralley an issue with something like birth control, especially once you’ve been on it a while, but I’ve had occasion to greatly appreciate explanations and such from the local pharmacist.

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  8. […] The pill: worth the risk? – The decline in women’s testosterone … This can lead to deficiency, causing fatigue, insomnia, low stress tolerance, and depression. Reduced zinc and increased copper levels can also knock your body out of its normal balance and may cause irritability … […]

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  9. Just as , morning after pills can be used for ciatrnceptoon. They are the same hormones. The vast majority of the medical establishment seems to go to great lengths to try obscure this, but a few sources are very explicit about it, including Planned Parenthood in the U.S.

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