Life Matters Journal is collaborating with The Guiding Project to bring you this regular column. April Jaure is the Blog Coordinator at The Guiding Star Project. Please visit theguidingstarproject.com to learn more about them.
Recently I was having a conversation with my hairdresser about contraception. Despite the fact that I am a Natural Family Planning (NFP) instructor, it’s not a topic that I typically discuss in casual conversations, as I’m afraid of coming on too strong. I had mentioned that I was going to Tampa, Florida the following week and she had asked what I was going to be doing there.
I explained that I was on the Board of Directors for an organization called the Guiding Star Project, a nonprofit that is working towards establishing centers across the United States that will offer women holistic, life-affirming care for many of the issues they face. I excitedly told her that our first center was opening in Tampa. I explained that our Guiding Star centers will have a variety of practitioners all located under a single roof. A woman could see her doctor or midwife, get help from a lactation consultant, see a doula or NFP instructor, and even get crisis pregnancy help all at one location. The centers would also include drop-in childcare to help women attend appointments more easily and maybe even little coffee shops too to help women relax for moment in an otherwise busy day.
When I mentioned Natural Family Planning, she informed me that she’s never liked the pill and that she was thankful that she has not been on it for some time. She never felt right about “messing with the natural way [her] body works.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “It is not good for women’s health. In fact, in 2005 the World Health Organization listed oral contraceptives as a Group 1 carcinogen.” “No way,” she said, shocked. I continued on, “It’s a class one carcinogen for breast, liver, and cervical cancer. Class one. That’s up there with cigarettes and asbestos.” She was very surprised at this and stated that she was definitely going to look into it more.
As this is 2015, a full ten years after the pill was given this classification (a classification that is given only when ample evidence has proven that a substance is carcinogenic to humans), I’m saddened by the number of women I encounter who are still unaware. Especially given the amount of attention that is given to Breast Cancer Awareness in recent years, from pink-ribboned snack packages, hats, mugs, and sweatshirts, to the pink-gloved-and-socked NFL players every October, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence when it comes to informing women about the most preventable risk factor for breast cancer. (Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death for women of childbearing age today.) This is especially dangerous since premenopausal breast cancer, unlike postmenopausal breast cancer, tends to be particularly aggressive.
Most of the women that come to me for NFP instruction also don’t know of the pill’s carcinogenic side effects. Many clients have chosen to go off the pill for various reasons, but a significant portion of them were put on it as teenagers, many due to irregular periods. I’ve even heard the pill referred to as a “rite of passage” for teen girls today. This trend is especially alarming since the carcinogenic risk is highest for women who have been on the pill for four or more years prior to their first full-term pregnancy, and even more disturbing to realize that it is normal for teen girls to have irregular periods! Often a girl’s periods will not establish a regular pattern until she is in her late teens or even early twenties. Though no one knows for sure, some researchers believe that cycle irregularity has a protective function for girls, since increased estrogen exposure is known to be a risk factor for cancer. Lengthy or anovulatory cycles in teens may prevent girls from being regularly exposed to higher amounts of estrogen in the early years of their cycle, postponing regular exposure until their bodies are fully mature and ready for motherhood.
Although the harms of the pill are not common knowledge, it is hopeful that the information is becoming more readily available from a variety of sources. For example, Holly Grigg-Spall’s work, Sweetening the Pill, and the subsequent documentary that is currently being produced of the same name, will hopefully bring into the mainstream the knowledge that women don’t have to bear with the side effects of birth control in order to plan their family size. Although Grigg-Spall makes known her pro-choice beliefs, it is nevertheless refreshing to hear her get it exactly right when she asks, “What is the social impact of providing 80 percent of generally healthy women with a drug that makes them sick?”
I am hopeful that one day soon it will be common knowledge that the pill isn’t as safe as it has been made out to be. I’m hopeful that women like my hairdresser, my clients, and young teens and their parents will know that femaleness itself isn’t a medical condition requiring medication. Women naturally are really pretty fantastic just the way they are.
1. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, "Carcinogenicity of Combined Hormonal Contraceptives and Combined Menopausal Treatment," World Health Organization, (September 2005) http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/ageing/cocs_hrt_statement.pdf
2. “Women’s Health Fact Sheet,” World Health Organization, last modified September 2013, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs334/en/.
3. Jessica M. Dolle et al. “Risk Factors for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer in Women Under the Age of 45 Years,” Cancer Epidimiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 18 (April 2009): 1157. http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/18/4/1157
4. Chris Khalenborn et al. “Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Premenopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis,” Mayo-Clinic Proceedings 81 no. 10 (Oct 2006): 1290-302. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17036554
5. “Menstruation in Girls and Adolescents: Using the Menstrual Cycle as a Vital Sign,” Committee Opinion of the American Academy of Gynecologists, no. 349 (Nov 2006, Reaffirmed 2009). http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Adolescent-Health-Care/Menstruation-in-Girls-and-Adolescents-Using-the-Menstrual-Cycle-as-a-Vital-Sign
6. Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Contraception. (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2013). Review copy 148.