November 19, 2007

Reading the whole study: the Pill and cervical cancer

Posted in Feminism, Medicine, Reproduction at 7:03 pm by The Lizard Queen

This is how the link at Feministing reads: “Women on the Pill are at higher risk for cervical cancer.” It’s in their weekly feminist roundup, which is always good reading. Given that I’m on the Pill and that cancer is present in my family’s history, I was curious, and followed the link. The article is titled Study Confirms Link Between Oral Contraceptive Use & Cervical Cancer, and it begins with the following paragraph:

An international review of 24 studies, involving more than 50,000 women, confirms findings of a link between birth-control pills and the incidence of cervical cancer. Researchers found that women who use oral contraceptives are at an increased risk of cervical cancer for up to 10 years after they stop.

Yikes, right? Except… here is the second half of the article, with emphasis added:

The authors of the report, who hail Oxford University in England, contend that the overall risks still remain small and should be seen in context.

“In the long term, the extra risk of cervical cancer in oral contraceptive users is more than outweighed by a reduction in risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.”

In developed countries, in a group of 1000 women there would normally be 3.8 cases of invasive cervical cancer by the time they were 50. If they used oral contraception for 10 years from the age of 20 and then stopped use, the figure would increase to 4.5 per 1000.

An editorial was published in “The Lancet” along with the study, in which Peter Sasieni from Queen Mary University of London said that the results should “reassure women that fear of cervical cancer should not be a reason to avoid use of oral contraception.”

To reiterate: use of the Pill for ten years raises a woman’s risk of cervical cancer by a mere .07 percent.  (It’s a 20% increase in overall occurrence, but the rate of occurrence is low enough that 20% is not as impressive as it might sound out of context.)  Enough to mention in a medical journal? Sure. Enough to write an article for a mainstream news outlet with the aforementioned title and opening paragraph? Not so much, really, I’m thinking.

I think the primary problem here is an outgrowth of the disconnect between and differing aims of medicine and journalism. That opening paragraph is a great hook; it sure kept me reading. And news outlets misunderstand and/or misreport statistics all the time (case in point: if Giuliani polled three points higher than Romney in Indifferenceville but the margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 points, Giuliani is not, in fact, in the lead).

However, it’s hard for me to ignore the overall implications of this article: “Are you sure you want to take the Pill?”  Which means, “Are you really sure you want to be having sex that doesn’t result in teh baybies?”

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