Pill Turns 50: Birth-Control Pills Are Commonplace in Medicine Cabinets, but Are They Safe?

Article excerpt

After a half-century of research and refinement, many doctors agree that the birth-control pill -- whatever its sociological ramifications -- is safer than its predecessors and helps stave off ovarian cancer and regulate menstrual cycles. Other positive side effects include reducing the risk of ovarian cysts, ectopic pregnancies and fibrocystic breast disease.

As with any medication, negative side effects can occur. The pill can cause weight gain and slightly increase chances of blood clots. But some users have experienced more serious consequences. Lisa (a pseudonym provided at her request) began taking birth-control pills 10 years ago as a contraceptive and to prevent a recurrence of ovarian cysts. "I wondered if it was healthy to be on it so long," she recalls.

Her doctors assured her the pill's benefits outweighed potential complications, but they noticed something was wrong while she was undergoing blood tests for an unrelated acid-reflux condition. One of her liver enzymes was elevated, which prompted further tests. Eventually, she learned she had a tumor, which now measures 2.8 inches long, growing on her liver.

"Because it is so rare, the immediate thought was that it was liver cancer," says Lisa, who spent a weekend mulling over that devastating possibility until her gastroenterologist, Tony Ringold, learned of her long-term pill usage. Ringold sees about three or four similar cases a year. "It's unpredictable, but clearly related to the birth-control pill," he says. "Before 1960, this was unheard of."

After subsequent testing, Lisa's tumor appears to be benign. She'll have it removed in a few months. "This is a pretty major operation on the horizon," she says, more than a bit concerned about its consequences, including a large scar across her mid-section.

Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical products and services company based in Upper Gwynedd, Pa., notes on its Website that benign tumors similar to Lisa's have "increased in prevalence because of widespread use of oral contraceptives." The tumors, the site says, often shrink if the medication is stopped. Most doctors agree that such situations are rare with pill usage, which began about 40 years ago, when the medication first earned the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) approval.

A new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that women taking the pill are nearly twice as likely to suffer strokes. But since women during their reproductive years rarely suffer strokes, researchers concluded that doubling the figures still represents a fraction of a risk to the pill-taking population -- one additional stroke yearly per 24,000 women for low-dose pill users and one per 12,000 women for higher dosages.

John Larsen, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, says the pill puts ovaries at rest, which causes a "big drop" in the chances for ovarian cancer. …