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

Supreme Court Rules Against Women in Hobby Lobby and Buffer Zone Cases

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby's right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby’s right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

On the morning of June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court (or should I say the men of the Supreme Court) ruled in favor of two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, who argued that they should not have to provide insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control, as required by the Affordable Care Act, because of the business owners’ personal religious beliefs.

The court stated that when corporations are “closely held” and it can be shown that the owners operate the business consistently with certain religious beliefs, then these corporations can be exempted from federal laws that burden those religious beliefs.


Emergency contraception and IUDs work primarily by preventing fertilization, and won’t interfere with existing pregnancies.


The “beliefs” in question held by these two corporations concern two forms of birth control — emergency contraception and IUDs (intrauterine devices). But their “beliefs,” that emergency contraception and IUDs are abortifacients, aren’t rooted in actual science.

Here are the details.

Hobby Lobby believes that “life begins at conception.” They define “conception” as the time at which a sperm and egg combine to create a zygote.

The medical community, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), defines conception as the point at which a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. According to ACOG, the term “conception” properly means implantation. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Can I Use Birth Control to Skip a Period?

In 2003, the FDA approved Seasonale, an extended-cycle birth control pill. This pill, a combination of estrogen and progestin, is taken daily for 84 days followed by one week of inactive (placebo) pills, allowing a woman to have her period once every three months — four times per year.

Since that time, several other extended-cycle birth control pills have been marketed, including Lybrel, released in 2007, which offers women continuous contraception coverage with only one period per year.


Using birth control to skip periods doesn’t result in side effects quite this exaggerated.

Prior to Seasonale’s debut, certain types of birth control pills could be taken back to back, allowing users to have period-free weddings and honeymoons, or to treat certain conditions, such as endometriosis. But there was no consensus about how to use birth control pills this way, and no actual product marketed specifically for this type of use. Early studies on extended-cycle pills reported that users were highly satisfied using pills to have fewer periods — and wanted to continue using these pills to reduce periods after the study was completed.

Can skipping periods be beneficial or harmful? Is this a lifestyle choice that’s not “natural”? How many “normal” periods do you need in a lifetime? Continue reading

Mythbusting: Does Emergency Contraception Cause Abortion?

Plan BThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently that one in nine sexually active women, or 5.8 million women, has used emergency contraceptive pills, such as Plan B. Emergency contraception is a woman’s back-up method to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and women report using it when they feel their contraceptive method has failed, such as a broken condom, or they do not use a regular contraceptive like birth control pills.


The latest scientific evidence shows that Plan B works mainly by delaying ovulation — not by affecting a fertilized egg.


Some conservative politicians have been stating publicly that emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs), such as Plan B, cause abortions. They may believe that life begins at conception (fertilization of the egg by the sperm) and argue that ECPs disrupt a fertilized egg’s ability to implant in the uterus, which they consider equivalent to abortion. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and experts from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health consider a pregnancy to be established when a fertilized egg settles itself on the wall of the uterus — implantation. A woman is most likely to become pregnant when she ovulates, which is usually about two weeks before her next period. Sperm can live for up to three days. So, if an egg is fertilized, there are still possibly six to 12 days before the implantation may take place.

When ECPs were first developed and information about them was submitted to the FDA for market approval, the drug manufacturers included mention of every possible mechanism on how the pill might work to prevent pregnancy. This included wording about preventing or delaying ovulation, making the sperm or egg less able to meet, and possibly preventing implantation. However, the latest scientific evidence has shown that ECPs such as Plan B mainly work by delaying ovulation — Plan B does not affect implantation and has no effect on existing pregnancies. Several prominent researchers have stated that if in fact Plan B disrupted implantation, it would be 100 percent effective at preventing a pregnancy, and that is not the case. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 16: Blood Tests to Screen for Ovarian Cancer

repro systemWelcome 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.


September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.


Ovarian cancer can strike anyone with ovaries, although it is most common in people who are more than 55 years old. It starts when certain mutations in ovarian cells start to proliferate, resulting in tumor growth. (Some types of ovarian cancer can originate in the fallopian tubes, but most ovarian cancers arise from the cells that cover the surface of the ovary.) If a cancerous cell breaks away, it might set up camp elsewhere in the body, resulting in the cancer’s spread. It can be a serious condition, affecting around one out of 71 ovary-wielding individuals.

What causes ovarian cancer?

If you learned about the reproductive system in school, you probably remember that ovulation involves the release of an egg from an ovary. What your teacher probably didn’t tell you is that the process of ovulation is actually rather violent. An egg does not exit the ovary through a preexisting “doorway” and shuttle down the fallopian tube to make its way to the uterus. Nope, when an egg is “released,” it actually bursts through the ovary itself.

OH YEAHUnfortunately, during ovulation, the egg perforates the ovary, creating a lot of tissue damage. The ovary needs to repair itself, sort of like how bricklayers will need to be hired to fix that mess left by the Kool Aid man. Because ovarian cells are so often replicating themselves during the repair process, there are more chances for an error to occur. Cells that divide frequently, like ovarian cells, are more prone to becoming cancerous. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 15: Fertility Awareness Education

FAM calendarWelcome 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.


Fertility awareness is not the same as the rhythm method.

Let’s start there.

It’s a common misconception that is, at best, a massive oversimplification that misconstrues the concept and may lead people to dismiss or deride fertility awareness out of hand. In reality, a lot of people could benefit from a more thorough understanding of fertility, as many sexually active couples spend a lot of their lives trying to control it — whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy. Planned Parenthood health centers provide education in fertility awareness-based methods (FAMs) for a variety of purposes.


If fertility awareness is not just the rhythm method, what is fertility awareness?

For someone having menstrual cycles, fertility awareness involves monitoring cycle signs and symptoms — predominantly cervical fluid and basal body temperature, though these are often supported or “cross referenced” by tracking other signs as well — in order to determine when a person is approaching ovulation and/or to confirm when ovulation has already taken place.

How does that even work?

Fertility awareness-based methods rely on a few underlying assumptions about fertility and the likelihood of conception:

  1. For pregnancy to happen, there must be both sperm and an ovum (egg) present.
  2. Ovulation — the release of an egg from the ovary into the fallopian tube — occurs once per menstrual cycle.
  3. Sperm can survive inside someone with a uterus for approximately five to six days. (Note: The actual number a given person or couple will want to use for this assumption can vary a bit depending on whether their main goal is to achieve or avoid pregnancy.)
  4. The ovum itself is viable in the fallopian tube for approximately one to two days. After that, it begins to disintegrate, and fertilization is not possible during that cycle. (Again, different couples may use different assumptions depending on their goals.) Continue reading