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The truth about the pill

In Features /

By Arielle Piat-Sauve

Victoria* vividly remembers the day her doctor first prescribed her the birth control pill. She sat in the purple and yellow waiting room filled with children’s toys at her pediatrician’s office, accompanied by her mother. The doctor, who was in his early 40s, had been her pediatrician since she was born. Victoria always thought he was rude and that day he seemed especially cold and detached. He did most of the talking while Victoria sat on the other side of the office, not really thinking about the pill. At 15, she started using the pill to regulate her cycle, and remained on it as means of contraception when she became sexually active.

Looking back, she feels that her doctor did not provide her with sufficient information about the pill and its potential side effects. After taking Yasmin, a popular variant of the pill, for five years and suffering from extreme migraines, nausea and other symptoms, Victoria, now a third-year Ryerson student, decided to stop taking the pill.

The birth control pill, first introduced to the North American market back in 1960, is a form of oral contraceptive that works to prevent pregnancy. It is one of the most trusted forms of oral contraceptive and is 99.9 per cent effective when taken correctly. That being said, it is important to remember that the pill doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections. The pill is, in fact, a hormonal contraceptive taken daily that contains small doses of the hormones estrogen and progestin, which work to stop the body from ovulating.

However, despite its popular usage and the wide range of information available, many myths about the pill still prevail, especially amongst younger users and university students.

Recently, birth control pills have been getting a bad reputation in the news. Last year Health Canada released a document linking 23 deaths to the use of the pills Yasmin and Yaz. These deaths were caused by the development of blood clots that travelled to the lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism, or the blood clots being shot up to the heart, leading to a heart attack. There have also been recalls conducted on Alysena-28, Freya-28 and Esme-28, due to errors in packaging and extra placebos. But it’s not all bad news for prospective Dusers.

Su-Ting Teo, Director of the Ryerson Health and Wellness Centre, hopes that with increased information, people will be more likely to sort fact from myth. But it all depends on where people get their information.

“The question is of course whether people access the Internet or just talk to their friends, and whether or not they access credible, unbiased, accurate websites,” she says. “Is it just a bulletin board where people talk about things, kind of like an expanded network of your friends, or do you actually go to medically sponsored websites?”

“I became really aggressive and I have never been that way before. I figured I was just adjusting to the pill because that’s what you are told,” she says.

 Victoria actually found it helpful to turn to group forums online, where she started to look for people who were dealing with the same side effects as she was.

Emotional mood swings, extremely painful migraines and nausea, combined with a low sex drive, served as a wake up call for 19-year-old Victoria.

“I started looking it up online because I thought this wasn’t normal. I found this group discussion and it pretty much described what I was experiencing.”

Vernija*, a first-year student on the birth control pill to regulate her cycle, had a very positive experience with the pill. She did admit that although she felt very informed about the pill, she was confused and skeptical about its long-term effects on the body.

“I have heard stories of girls who were on birth control pills and when they got older and tried to have a child, they weren’t be able to,” she says. “I think a lot of people hear of the pill not on a medical basis but on a social basis, so they understand what they know of it through Sfriends and the media.”

So what are the actual potential side effects of taking the birth control pill?

Dr. Teo noticed that a lot of female students that walk into the Health Centre are misinformed about the pill. At the top of the list are fears of weight gain, an increase in acne, health concerns if the pill is taken continuously and that if you are on the pill for a long time you will have trouble conceiving later on.

“All the side effects that anyone gets from the pill are really the side effects that you get from being pregnant, except less because the dosage of the hormone is much less,” she says.

Dr. Teo works on debunking these myths as soon as possible. According to her, it is all about putting things in context and realizing that many of these myths are simply possible side effects of being pregnant.

This is why some women may experience weight gain, while others not, and why some may see their acne clear up, while other we see an increase in blemishes. Also similarly to when you are pregnant, being on the pill increases your risk of developing a blood clot, which is why it is important to be honest about your medical history with your health care professional. If you are already at risk of developing a blood clot, then Dr. Teo advises that you should not be taking the pill.

There are also health benefits of taking the pill, many of which are still overshadowed by the myths and negative side effects of the pill. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, positive long-term effects of the pill include increased protection against ovarian cancer, lowering the risk by up to 40 per cent.

Dr. Teo agrees that Vernija’s concern about not being able to actually conceive when the time is right is one of the most common misconceptions women have. She says that taking the pill will not affect your chances of getting pregnant once you are ready to conceive.

“It is not about the fact that you are on the pill, it is about the fact that you are 15 years older,” says Dr. Teo.

It is also recommended to take the pill continuously without breaks for the placebo, unlike what many women believe. Dr. Teo explains that the pill was in fact designed that way and that there is no need to stop and take the placebo pills which in fact lead to that “artificial period”

Each woman may react differently to the pill, which is why it is important to know what to look for in terms of side effects. Alex*, a fourth-year student, started taking the pill two years ago. She felt that her doctor had pushed her to get on it and tried to convince her that it was right for her body and would regulate her hormone levels.

Feeling ashamed as she left the doctor’s, she took the pill for a week until the pain became unbearable. Her body started to retain water and she experienced problems urinating. The pain and constant mood swings became too much and she reached her breaking point.

“I woke up one morning and I was just bawling my eyes out, I was so upset. So I called my mom and she is the one who told me to stop taking the pills,” she recalls.

For Victoria, her experience served as an important lesson and she hopes to keep the conversation around birth control open and active. She is confident that next time around she will know to do the necessary research so she’s well informed prior to meeting with the doctor.

Dr. Teo reminds female students that the birth control pill remains an extremely effective method of contraception, and recent recalls don’t change that.

“There is nothing new or different about the medication itself,” she says. “There were some errors and recalls, but that can happen with any medication.”

*last names have been omitted

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