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Contraceptive Pills: Protection or Menace?

To pop a pill or not? This has been the dilemma for women for nearly half a century. The controversies surrounding contraceptive pills have always been there.

When reading any pro or anti literature concerning the pill, you will often encounter contradicting statements by turns, citing the pill to be either beneficial or harmful to health. Some of the statements directly go against the other so you might tend to wonder: what is the truth? The answer depends on where or who it is coming from. I would say all women must understand well the nature of these pills, how they usually influence our bodies, and take note of what people say about them, who they are (whether they are doctors, researchers, patients, RH bill advocates, pharmaceutical representatives), what their motives are for saying such things, and where they are coming from.

However it is the testimonials of pleased/displeased consumers that make for very interesting reading. To be sure there are both satisfied and dissatisfied long-term users of the pill. After 50 years of exposing women to this drug, we can acquire enough empirical data to make our own judgments, including the ones acquired from personal experience. But as we are on the topic of safety, this article aims to take a closer look at the adverse claims against the pill.

Personally, the reason why I even took the pill had nothing to do with contraception. Having a stressful job and an imbalanced lifestyle, I broke out in acne, and for a long time, the quality of my skin was horrendous. I did not seek topical solutions because I understood much of the problem to be internal. So wise or not, I decided to take the pill – the first one was Diane, then later Yasmin. Friends and friends of friends testified to how they, as regular pill takers, enjoyed the benefits of smooth, clear skin. I mentioned taking this step to my gynecologist and to my dermatologist, and did not receive any kind of discouragement.

After a few months I started to experience various effects such as mood swings and intense migraine attacks. Initially, my skin started to clear and show a pretty plush pink. I also noticed that I lost weight during my intake. But then I began having deep and heavy feelings of worthlessness and irritation within me which were very hard to rationalize. These moods somewhat affected my job because I instructed European clients on a daily basis. In any case, I couldn’t keep up the regularity of the dosages because they were encouraged to be taken at a precise hour, hence the supposed effect on my skin was compromised. My skin fell back into a dull and coarse texture because the stresses of the job did not go away as well, so using the pill as a dermatological solution was a failure. Eventually, I stopped the pill altogether. I also quit a highly stressful job and lifestyle and the quality of my skin changed positively. However, I immediately experienced some weight gain when I dropped the pill. I shared my experience with other contraceptive pill takers and they shared their own adverse reactions. This led me to do some research on my own.

First, we must be clear on what the pill is and how it functions in the human body: it is a cocktail of synthetic hormones. Typically, the female body ovulates once a month to ripen an egg that it will send down the fallopian tube. The egg will reach the uterus, in order to be fertilized by the sperm. In the event that it is not fertilized, the lining of the uterus plus the egg will leave the body in order to cleanse the area and go through the cycle all over again. This is a normal system that indicates that our bodies are functioning as it should. Meanwhile, birth control pills with their high levels of synthetic estrogen try to convince our pituitary gland that we are pregnant and that ovulation is unnecessary. Thus, the uterine lining thickens. The pills make our estrogen level suddenly drop, then allowing the body to menstruate. This abnormal intervention happens to millions of women around the world, though I wonder how many have considered what the consequences may be as they continue to interfere with nature’s cycle each year.

I suggest women who have been taking the pill for a long time (a year or more) read up on what the pill has done for other women, whether good or bad. If you or someone you know has experienced any similar effects, you must carefully document and observe your experience, and report the things that disturb you to your doctor right away. Here are the possible effects of the pill (sources are anecdotal or from published sources):

1. Cancer. There is no direct correlation between cervical cancer and the pill, but some studies show a higher incidence of cervical cancer among contraceptive pill takers, indicating that it might be down to the fact that women who take the pill do not take any other form of protection during sex, and are probably more sexually active than others. Taking the pill might be an indication of a lifestyle that does not protect a woman from HPV infection, one of the few sexually transmitted viruses that can actually lead to cancer.

However, some damning proof from no less than the World Health Organization (WHO), shows that there is a direct relationship between the pill and cancer. According to a report dated July 29, 2005 released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, combined oral contraceptives in the pill are labeled as Group I carcinogens. They said that “Use of OC’s increases risk of breast, cervix, and liver cancer.” This was presented by a working group of 21 scientists from 8 countries convened by the cancer research agency of the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The press release can be read here: The American Cancer Society in 2008 says that despite this outright claim, doctors continue to prescribe the pill for different conditions. This surprising revelation has been called by some as “the best kept medical secret.”

Ranking the elements in the pill as carcinogenic industrial chemicals with the same cancer potential as asbestos or benzene is a very serious matter. Studies show that breast cancer rates have boomed in the last four decades. We know that the pill has been around for five.

More recently, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (a journal by the Mayo Clinic) in an article called “Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Pre-menopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis” described how 21 out of 23 studies that followed women who took the pill prior to having their first child showed an increased risk of breast cancer. Author Chris Kahlenborn, M.D., warned that  “Anyone who is prescribing oral contraceptives has a duty to tell women that 21 of 23 studies showed an increased risk.”

2. Memory loss, moodiness, loss of libido, weak bones, migraines, and digestive problems. I lumped these side effects together as they can be caused by any number of reasons, but due to some coincidence, they often seem to be present in contraceptive pill takers. Jen, 26, and who has been taking the pill for two plus years, was known to have migraine attacks, an intolerant stomach (which means that food that her friends could tolerate would produce a stomach ache in her), and is a victim of a repeat dislocation in the knee. Furthermore, her friends often say that she has short-term memory and often has “topak” or is moody. Jen denies these symptoms or that they could be traced to the pill. The only thing that she will admit to is that the pill does have the power to affect one’s moods, but only in the beginning, especially if one is stopping or restarting a pill pack or shifting to another brand. Lorena, 38, and who has been on a pill for a few years, testifies to loss of libido. Meanwhile, Claire, who was on Yasmin for a year, had ulcerative colitis that cleared up a few years before starting on contraceptive pills. About 5 months on the pill, her colitis returned. She decided to stop the pill and noted that her digestive system improved within a few months.

As for the relationship between weak bones and the pill, a connection was suggested in a presentation at the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. Dr. Jan Stepan of Charles University in Prague explained that in a randomized, crossover trial, bone mineral density (BMD) did not increase in girls 15 to 19 years old. These girls took pills with 15 micrograms of ethinyl estradiol (considered low dose) for nine months. On the other hand, bone density increased normally in participants taking pills with a high dose or 30 micrograms of ethinyl estradiol. Ethinyl estradiol is a form of the female hormone estrogen commonly used in birth control pills. Stepan pointed out that the lower dose of ethinyl estradiol could be suppressing the body’s normal estrogen release without fully replacing it. Dr. Craig Langman, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, agreed, saying that these findings were plausible.

3. Venal thrombosis. Even the manufacturers of the pill make no secret of this possible side effect; in fact you will find this warning in most packs with an attendant warning against combining both a smoking habit and going on the pill. Two recent reports in the British Medical Journal found a double or triple risk of blood clots in women taking pills like Yaz, which is produced by Bayer, the US Food and Drug Administration has said in a statement in May this year. As of June this year, the US Food and Drug Administration has already ordered a safety review of pills manufactured by Bayer Corporation, which includes brands like Yaz, Yasmin, Beyaz, and Safyral – all containing drospirenone. A rare possibility? Sandra told how her 18-year-old daughter was released from the hospital with a blood clot in her lung.  She had been taking Yasmin for about a year, was smoking approximately six to seven cigarettes a day, and claimed that they had not been given sufficient warning that this kind of effect could happen. As a result, Sandra’s daughter has had to take blood thinners for six months.

I could go on with other effects and their possible relationship to the pill, with anecdotes from other current and ex-users, but these issues are sufficient for now. The only question I have is, despite these published facts and anecdotal evidence, why do doctors continue to think that such risks are acceptable and prescribe contraceptive pills like candy? Such issues should be deeply looked into by those in the medical profession and by the authors and advocates of the RH Bill.