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

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951A man to whom we owe tremendous gratitude, Carl Djerassi, one of the creators of THE birth control pill, passed away last week. (NYT)
  • Missouri wants to pass legislation forcing women about to undergo an abortion to watch a video warning them of alleged “abortion risks,” “including, but not limited to, infection, hemorrhage, cervical tear or uterine perforation, harm to subsequent pregnancies or the ability to carry a subsequent child to term, and possible adverse psychological effects.” Hmm, know what else carries those same risks annnnnd a higher risk of death? Carrying a pregnancy to term and delivering a baby. I’m guessing the video won’t promote that science, though! (Think Progress)
  • With the majority of pregnancies in the state being unintended (58 percent), the second-highest poverty rate in the United States, and one of the highest STD rates in the country, Louisiana needs Planned Parenthood. However, anti-abortion zealots in the state are fighting the opening of a new Planned Parenthood health center instead of starting a grassroots campaign to cure the issues causing the need. #Logic (Cosmopolitan)
  • Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has come over from the Dark Side and is now pro-choice. So nice to have you — now please help effect change in your rabidly anti-abortion state, sir. (USA Today)
  • Michigan Rep. Brandon Dillon is on our side too now. Is there something in the water out there in the Midwest, and can we import it to Arizona, like, yesterday? (MLive)
  • Sugary drinks, obesity, and family distress are all cited as reasons for early puberty in young girls. (NYT)
  • The House (Republicans, of coooooourse) voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act again. ’Cause, ya know, the 56th time’s the charm. (NPR)
  • Grab your surgical and/or gas masks, fellow Arizonans. Hundreds of schools in our state are skirting the vaccination mandates at great peril to us all. (AZ Central)
  • Anti-abortion creeps and anti-vaccination creeps: birds of a stupid feather. (RH Reality Check)
  • AARP & Astroglide: The over-70 set is still actively sexing each other up! Good for them! (HuffPo)
  • From crisis pregnancy centers to clinic protesters, we’re quite used to abortion foes telling filthy lies to justify their agendas. Which is why it’s hard to be surprised that Texas got faux “experts” to lie and use discredited science to close half of the abortion clinics in the state. (Slate)

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • SCOTUS dissentThe Hobby Lobby decision created a whirlwind of foolhardy “What’s the big deal?” arguments among those who failed to understand its magnitude. Here are the best responses to those. (Cosmopolitan)
  • Democrats aren’t taking the Hobby Lobby debacle lying down, though! A new bill seeks to disallow employers from using their religion to deny you the right to use the medication you need. (NY Times)
  • Despite what many race-baiting abortion opponents say, abortion clinics mostly occupy majority-white neighborhoods. (Washington Times)
  • The CEO of a Michigan company called Eden Foods sued the Obama Administration to get out of providing contraception coverage, calling birth control “lifestyle drugs.” Excuse me while I go perform the world’s biggest eye roll. (Grist)
  • In a few short years, we could be looking at the first birth control implant that women could “deactivate” via remote control without visiting a doctor. (Time)
  • Powerful piece by Irin Carmon on the respectability politics surrounding birth control. (MSNBC)
  • Abortion clinic buffer zones around the country are crumbling. (HuffPo)
  • Scientists say that birth control pills make your eggs “look old” while you’re on them, but once you’re off, their youthful exuberance returns. (Live Science)

Book Club: Woman Rebel – The Margaret Sanger Story

Woman RebelNow that comic books have become the source material for blockbuster movies, the oft-told story of the maligned and misunderstood superhero should be a familiar one, even to many who have never read a comic. Think Professor Xavier’s cohort in the X-Men movies or Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. They’re extraordinary. They’re also flawed, often unable to shake the ghosts of an uneasy past. But their powers, not their shortcomings, are the reason they’re so maligned. No matter their good intentions, they challenge what is known and established, earning them fear and distrust.


Bagge’s graphic novel is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best.


Given that trope, maybe it wasn’t such an odd idea to give the comic book treatment to the life of Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood. Writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, a veteran of alternative comics, does just that in Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). The outcome is a graphic novel that doesn’t let exaggerated expressions, vivid colors, and terse speech bubbles derail an intelligent and sensitive retelling of Sanger’s life.

Comparing Sanger to a superhero might be hyperbole, but Sanger’s trailblazing work not only created the movement to advocate for birth control but also spurred the development of the oral contraceptive, or “the Pill.” She had the drive and the know-how to contribute to the movement as an author, editor, lecturer, and founder of a reproductive health clinic. Along the way, Sanger helped change the laws that stood in the way of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, while rubbing shoulders (and sometimes developing romances) with many luminaries of her time, from novelists to political agitators to wealthy industrialists. March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment — a theme perfect for someone of Sanger’s stature. Sanger’s visionary efforts earned her many accolades — as well as a campaign of character assassination that has called her everything from a fascist to a proponent of genocide. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Birth Control Pills — Not Just for Preventing Pregnancy

pillThere has been a lot of political posturing recently about whether the government should require health insurance to provide birth control without a co-pay as part of a preventive health care package. So many people, including politicians, can only “see” the contraceptive side, which is pretty important, by the way. Approximately 15.8 in 100,000 women in the United States die from pregnancy or pregnancy-related issues yearly, and that number has doubled in the past 25 years. We have one of the worst maternal death rates of all developed nations, right near the bottom of the list.


Birth control pills can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including painful periods, acne, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.


But putting all that aside, let’s look at the how oral contraceptives pills (OCPs) are actually used in this country, and for what reasons besides contraception. You may argue that many birth control pills are only approved for contraception purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so other uses are not valid. But many drugs that may have narrow conditions of approved use are often prescribed off-label by physicians when they have data and information about how effective they can be for other conditions where not much else works.

According to a 2011 study using data from the 2006–2008 National Survey for Family Growth, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 14 percent of all women using birth control pills — that’s 1.5 million women — use them for purposes other than preventing pregnancy. Granted, 86 percent of OCP users report using them for birth control. But over the years, these OCPs have helped many people as treatments for dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, endometriosis, menstrual-related migraines, acne, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Continue reading