Ovarian Cancer, Endometrial Cancer, and the Pill

birth-control-pillsThe most popular method of birth control in the United States is the Pill, followed by tubal ligation (permanent sterilization, or getting your tubes tied) and condoms. The Pill is a hormonal method of contraception, while sterilization and condoms are nonhormonal. The distinction between hormonal and nonhormonal methods of birth control are simply that the former contain synthetic versions of human hormones, while the latter do not.


By suppressing ovulation and thinning the uterine lining, the Pill can reduce risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.


Glands in our bodies, called endocrine glands, produce hormones; additionally, testes and ovaries — which are parts of the human reproductive system — manufacture hormones. Human hormones are powerful chemicals, which do all sorts of jobs, from triggering puberty to helping us extract energy from the foods we eat. So it’s not a huge stretch to wonder if exposure to the hormones present in certain birth control methods — such as the Pill, in addition to the patch, the ring, the shot, the implant, and some types of IUDs — might have unintended effects on the body. Because hormones can play a role in cancer — either in protecting against it or aiding in its development — researchers are very interested to know if the Pill might increase or decrease risk for various types of cancer.

It’s actually a bit tricky to investigate the possible associations between the Pill and various types of cancer. First of all, there are dozens of types of birth control pills, all with different versions of synthetic hormones, at different dosages, and in different proportions to one another. Furthermore, the types of oral contraceptives on the market change over time — today’s birth control pill is not your mother’s birth control pill. Studying “the Pill” as a single entity could obscure differences between brands. Secondly, most cancers tend to develop later in life, many years after someone may have taken oral contraceptives. Researchers need to be careful to control for all the variables that might increase or decrease cancer risk. Continue reading

Will St. John’s Wort Affect Birth Control?

st-johns-wortHerbal remedies are very popular around the world. Many people prefer them to pharmaceuticals because they believe herbs can elicit positive results without serious side effects. However, plants produce a wide variety of chemicals at varying concentrations, and might have a number of effects on your body, both good and bad. Furthermore, since herbal supplements are not evaluated by the FDA for safety or effectiveness, consumers often don’t have ready access to evidence about herbal products. We can’t even be sure that they contain the ingredients that are listed on the label!


St. John’s wort might decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, and might be unsafe during pregnancy.


One popular herb is St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum. While the scientific evidence is mixed at best, many people believe that St. John’s wort can be used as an antidepressant. However, people often treat themselves with herbal supplements without guidance from a medical doctor or pharmacist — and without knowing whether or not these herbs are safe to use with any medications they might be taking.

Over the millennia, plants have evolved all sorts of powerful chemicals, such as toxins, to defend themselves against insects and other predators. For this reason, we can’t assume that plants only contain inert chemicals that won’t affect us or interact with the chemicals in other drugs and supplements we use. St. John’s wort, in fact, contains chemicals that interfere with other medications. It has been banned in France, and other countries require or are considering warning labels on St. John’s wort products so consumers can be aware of possible drug interactions. Continue reading

What Do We Know About Herbal Remedies and Menstrual Cramps? (Spoiler Alert: Not Much.)

herbalWhen I was entering adulthood and suffering from severe menstrual cramps, I suffered without relief for far too long. And I am certainly not alone in this experience. The most common gynecological disorder is dysmenorrhea — painful menstrual cramps — which strikes an estimated 90 percent of reproductive-age females. Furthermore, around 40 percent of American women use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. “CAM” is a catchall for approaches to health care that fall outside of the mainstream. Given the popularity of CAM and the ubiquity of dysmenorrhea, it was no surprise that I experienced painful cramps, nor was it shocking that I tried a few herbal remedies, which are a type of CAM.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


During my second year of college, at the age of 19, a friend recommended a couple of herbal remedies to add to my cramp-fighting arsenal. I tried them, but it was difficult to know if they really worked. My pain varied so wildly cycle to cycle that I had no way of knowing if I was just having a “good month” when I initially tried these products. Although I thought they worked at first, after I had accumulated more menstrual cycles under my belt, I started to wonder if my cramps were really any less painful. On average, I still seemed to be missing just as much school and work as before — but I wasn’t sure.

The problem was that I never collected any before-and-after data — I didn’t spend years ranking the severity and duration of my cramps, or keeping track of the hours spent in bed away from school, work, or other obligations. Furthermore, my initial sense of optimism could have colored my perceptions. Since we can be tricked by our own expectations and biases, it is important to have access to quality evidence — gathered in large, methodologically powerful studies.

Raspberry leaf tea was the first herbal remedy I tried. It tasted OK, and the ritualistic nature of drinking a hot beverage from a steaming mug was soothing. But is there any actual evidence that raspberry leaf can help relieve the pain of dysmenorrhea? Although it’s been used therapeutically since at least the 1500s, the only human studies I can find for any gynecological condition examine its use during pregnancy or labor — not for treating menstrual cramps. The only claims for raspberry leaf’s efficacy in treating cramps come from biased sources, like the manufacturers themselves. It seems the tea I drank during my late teen years had word of mouth and marketing going for it, but not much else. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 21: Contraception

World Contraception DayWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

Birth control is about so much more than just one type of pill. First of all, there are dozens of varieties of the Pill, and beyond that even more types of contraception! With so many options available, you’re bound to find the birth control option that’s right for you, and Planned Parenthood can help you find it.

Birth Control Pills: The Pill is probably the first thing people think of when they think of birth control, and it’s no wonder: Since its introduction in 1960, it has become an iconic symbol of women’s liberation. Taken at the same time every day, the Pill is an incredibly effective form of birth control that works by suppressing ovulation. And there are many different types, from those that are specially designed to reduce the number of periods you have in a year, to progestin-only mini-pills, from name brand pills to generic pills, and more!

Vaginal Ring: Not everyone likes taking a daily pill; some people are naturally forgetful, while others have hectic schedules that don’t make it easy to dedicate a time of the day to pill-taking. That’s where contraceptives like NuvaRing come in: This flexible ring is inserted into the vagina, where it releases a low dose of daily hormones. Leave it in for three weeks, remove it for a week, and then start the cycle anew with a new ring!

Birth Control Patch: Ring not your thing? Maybe a patch is where it’s at. It works a lot like the ring, only instead of inserting it into your vagina, you pop the patch out of its wrapper and stick it to your skin, where it stays in place for a full week, releasing hormones all the while. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • handcuffsOh, brother, fetuses have actual rights over the rights of the woman carrying them. And these women are being put in the slammer. The reproductive rights of women are becoming non-existent. (Salon)
  • Arizona is trying to eliminate the rights of pregnant women as well. Not that this is extraordinarily out of character for this state. (RH Reality Check)
  • By the way, Ohio sucks too. (Think Progress)
  • Add Texas to the list as well. (NPR)
  • Et tu, Alabama? (ABC News)
  • And lest you think these injustices are limited to the United States, the European Union is on the anti-woman train as well. (The Washington Times)
  • We might be looking at another government shutdown. This time over contraception. *Heavy sigh* (The Daily Beast)
  • Things you should know about the pill and its potential effects on your skin. (HuffPo)
  • Birth control is awesome and you won’t have fertility issues after you stop taking it. (Care2)
  • 2015 will be a banner year for male contraception! Only 14 months away! Not that I’m counting or anything … (Collegian)

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • plan bHere’s a nifty little map showing the number of unintended pregnancies by state. (HuffPo)
  • Why has the birth rate for teenagers hit an all-time low? Hint: It’s not because of abstinence. (Double X Factor)
  • Poor, Black, and Hispanic Women Are More Often Counseled on Emergency Contraception (NYT)
  • (Honorary Feminist) President Obama is not going to let employees working for religious organizations go without the birth control they need, gosh darnit! (The Fiscal Times)
  • More and more women are relying on the “pull-out” method rather than hormonal contraception. (HuffPo)
  • Conservative goons the Koch brothers are spending big bucks to strip you of your reproductive rights. (RH Reality Check)
  • Everything You Need to Know About the Abortion Case That’s Headed to the Supreme Court (Think Progress)
  • Dear Parents, Your daughter’s uterus does not belong to you. And parental notification laws serve no purpose other than to obstruct teenagers’ access to abortion. (Truth-Out)
  • Wanna know how to get an abortion in Texas? It ain’t easy! (Al Jazeera America)

Let’s Talk Contraception: NuvaRing, Another Contraceptive Choice

Would you like an alternative to a daily pill for contraception? NuvaRing is a flexible vaginal ring containing a combination of two hormones used to prevent pregnancy: a progestin and an estrogen. It is placed inside the vagina where it releases a continuous small dose of these hormones, and is left in place for three weeks. Then you remove it and wait one week, during which you usually will have your period. After this ring-free week, you insert a new ring.


The vaginal ring is an excellent alternative for people who don’t want to take a daily pill for contraception.


Used properly, it is nearly as effective as oral birth control pills, is easily reversible and frees you from having to remember to take a pill each day. You can use tampons, vaginal yeast medications, and spermicides when wearing the ring, but you should not use a diaphragm because it may not fit properly. In some vaginal conditions, such as a prolapsed (or falling) uterus, you may not be able to use the ring because it might slip out more easily. The NuvaRing can only work when it’s inserted properly in order to release its hormones. Most women report they cannot feel the ring once it’s inserted.

Most of the side effects of the NuvaRing are similar to birth control pills. Cigarette smoking is definitely not recommended because it may increase your risk for strokes or heart attacks, especially if you are older than 35. There have been several reports that the ring may put you at an increased risk for blood clots, and this is still being studied. If you have concerns about this or have a personal or family history of blood clots, heart attacks, or strokes, it’s important to talk with your health care provider before using the ring. Continue reading