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Why nuns might be stoking cancer in quest to stay chaste

Health & Science


By the very nature of their calling, Catholic nuns form one cluster of women who should never worry about birth control. They have already taken a vow of chastity to serve the Church better.

But two Australian scientists have stirred a storm by proposing that the 95,000 nuns worldwide should use oral contraceptive pills, not for contraception, but to drastically lower their chances of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.

In an article recently published in the international medical journal The Lancet, the researchers state that nuns “pay a terrible price for their chastity” and urge the church to make the oral contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns in order to decrease risk of these cancers.

Apparently, the Catholic Church officially condemns all forms of contraception except abstinence.

But local cancer specialists have instantly condemned the theory, with Catholic doctors terming it as adding paraffin to fire and warning that contraceptives indeed accelerate cancer cases.

They have also questioned the intent of the scientists, who they claim could be making a deliberate effort to market contraceptives.

In the article, The Plight of Nuns: Hazards of Nulliparity, Dr Kara Britt of Monash University and Prof Roger Short from the University of Melbourne note that past research has confirmed that women who do not give birth during their lifetime, among them nuns, were more likely to die of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers than the rest of the female population.

This is because such women have a higher number of ovulatory menstrual cycles than other women because of the absence of pregnancy and lactation. Scientifically, an increased number of cycles

Increases cancer risk.

According to Britt and Short, two epidemiological studies of the health effects of contraceptive pills conducted in the past two years have shown that the oral contraceptive pill significantly decreases overall mortality rate. It does not increase breast cancer risk, and significantly reduces risk of both ovarian and uterine cancers.

The researchers note that the overall mortality rate among those who used the oral contraceptive pill was reduced by 12 per cent This is compared to non-users and that in both studies, the adjusted relative risks of ovarian and endometrial cancers (were reduced by 50 to 60 per cent.

 The protection, they note, persisted for 20 years, which shows long-term benefit. However, they state that oral contraceptive did not reduce the relative risks of breast cancer.

The scientists state that the birth control pills work by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg each month. By preventing ovulation, the pill may also protect the inner lining of the uterus and ovaries from developing runaway growths that could lead to tumours.

Although the Catholic Church condemns all forms of contraception except abstinence, as outlined by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968, the researchers state that contraceptives should not be kept out of nuns’ reach.

“Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free to use the contraceptive pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity (not giving birth) since the document states ‘the Church in no way regards as unlawful therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic diseases, even though they also have a contraceptive effect,” they say.

Contraceptives not answer

“If the Catholic Church could make the oral contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns, it would reduce the risk of those accursed pests (breast cancer), cancer of the ovary and uterus, and give nuns’ plight the recognition it deserves,” they conclude, declaring they have no conflicts of interest whatsoever.

But in a livid rejoinder, Catholic Doctors Association Chairman Dr Stephen Karanja says contraceptives will never be the answer to cancer.

He in contrast warns that by taking some of the most popular morning after pills in the market, it is almost 100 per cent guaranteed that the users would get breast cancer.

Dr Karanja, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, says the increased use of contraceptives is now the reason behind the high cancer deaths in the country. Ostensibly, cancer was the fourth highest killer in the country last year, falling marginally behind HIV/Aids.

“If you suggest that contraception is an answer to deal with cancer, then you would be putting paraffin on fire. I have been in medicine for over 30 years and the cancers we are seeing today were not there before.

 I am now seeing cancer in kids and so many girls under the age of 30 are coming to me with advanced cancer of the breast.

Most of them have been on morning after pills and other contraceptive forms that were not there before,” he explains.

Dr Karanja, a seasoned anti-contraceptives crusader, says the Australian scientists could be contraceptive dealers who are merely doing marketing since “theirs is the exact opposite of evidence available in the medical field. “When contraceptives were not in the market, cancer was very rare,” he states.

The doctor notes by the very nature of who they are, nuns are predisposed to particular cancers, particularly cancer of the breast and cancer of the endometrium, which affects the wall of the womb.

“Cancer of the breast, apart from people who are on hormones is also a cancer of those who do not breastfeed.

Nuns do not get children and cancer of the breast has thus been a problem for them traditionally. Cancer of the endometrium is also a main problem among women who do not have children and nuns do not have children,” Karanja explains.

He affirms that by virtue of their calling, nuns are informed that they are prone to these two cancers before they enter the convent. “They are let to know that the life they have chosen exposes them to some of these issues,” he says.

To avert the high cancer death rate, the doctor calls on society to stop advertising sex as entertainment and availing contraceptives to children.

Dr Kimanthi Kimende, a surgeon and breast cancer specialist equally opposes the recent proposal by the Australian researchers, noting that so far, there is no medical evidence to date that contraceptive pills can treat or prevent cancer.


Vatican not responded

The doctor notes that by taking contraceptive pills with high doses of oestrogen, one has a higher risk of getting cancer while similar pills with lower oestrogen levels pose lesser risk of cancer.

A number of other oncologists described The Lancet article as having more political than scientific value.

While the Vatican is yet to officially respond to the findings, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokesperson of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out to openly dismiss the notion that the Vatican micromanages health care choices of nuns.

Speaking to ABC News, Ms Walsh said nuns have the same access to medical care as any other woman – and that includes access to the pill.

“They are presuming the church has some kind of authority over the medical care of nuns, which it does not. A nun goes to a doctor for her medical care, and if that medical care requires a certain kind of medicine then that medicine is prescribed,” she states.

Oral contraceptives can increase the risk of blood clots, a risk thought to be higher in some newer versions of the pill.

She dismissed the suggestion that all nuns should take contraception as “rather sweeping and almost irresponsible, noting that the benefits of the pill in reducing cancer risk must be weighed against the side effects.

“A nun’s decision needs to be worked out between the nun and her doctor,” Walsh asserted.

Our efforts to get comments from local Catholic leaders on this topic were futile as those contacted opted to pass the debate.



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