Effects of oral contraceptives on breast epithelial proliferation

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2001 Jan;65(2):163-9. doi: 10.1023/a:1006482418082.


The association between oral contraceptive (OC) use and breast cancer is not fully understood. Estrogen is a known mitogen to breast epithelial cells, but there is still a controversy about the effect of added progestogens. Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsies were used to assess epithelial proliferation in normal breast tissue from 106 healthy premenopausal women with and without oral contraceptives. In 26 women biopsies were performed before and after 2 months of OC use. Proliferation, expressed as percentage of Ki-67/MIB-1 positive cells, was correlated to endogenous progesterone, androgenic/anabolic compounds and exogenous progestogen. We found a higher proliferation (p = 0.03) in OC users compared to non users, with mean values of 4.8% and 2.2%, respectively. There was a positive correlation between proliferation and progesterone levels in non-users and with serum levonorgestrel concentrations in women using OCs containing this progestogen (rs = 0.43, p = 0.02). Women using OCs had significantly lower serum androgen levels compared to naturally cycling women and free testosterone levels displayed an inverse relation to breast epithelial proliferation. There was a marked variation in the response to exogenous sex steroids. In certain women after 2 months of OC use, the percentage of MIB-1 positive cells was as high as 40-50%. The results add to the growing evidence that progestogens may be mitogenic in breast tissue. Increased proliferation during hormonal contraception should be regarded as an unwanted and potentially hazardous side effect. Efforts should be made to define hormonal contraceptive regimens which minimize breast epithelial proliferation and to identify those women with the most pronounced proliferative response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antigens, Nuclear
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Biopsy, Needle
  • Breast / cytology*
  • Breast / drug effects
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cell Division / drug effects*
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Combined / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ki-67 Antigen
  • Middle Aged
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism*
  • Progesterone / blood


  • Antigens, Nuclear
  • Biomarkers
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Combined
  • Ki-67 Antigen
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Progesterone