A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that women with breast cancer who were taking a low dose of aspirin had a 46 percent lower risk of recurrent disease than those who did not take the easily accessible, over-the-counter medication.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School studied 4,164 nurses ranging in age from 30 to 55 who developed breast cancer between 1976 and 2002. The participants were followed until 2006. Approximately half of the patients were taking aspirin to reduce their risk of heart disease.
Although the dose taken was not documented, the majority were taking the equivalent of one baby aspirin (81 milligrams) daily. Researchers were surprised to find that not only did the women taking aspirin have a lower risk of recurrence, but the risk of death from breast cancer was decreased as well.
Aspirin belongs to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Motrin (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxyn) and Celebrex (celecoxib) are also NSAIDs. This type of drug is an analgesic used to relieve pain and to suppress the immune system, an effect that is often employed to treat patients with inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. At a low dose, aspirin also interferes with the ability of platelets to clump together, which has been shown to significantly reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. For patients at risk of heart disease,cholesterol deposits in arteries can increase the incidence of platelet clumping, an initial step in the development of a blood clot that can lead toheart attacks and stroke.
Interestingly, the benefits of aspirin on heart attack and stroke risk are much better in men than women, where aspirin has been shown to have little effect in those under 65 and only reduces stroke risk in women over 65 years of age.
Numerous studies have shown that NSAIDs appear to prevent the development of cancer. In the early 1970s, research revealed that taking NSAIDs suppressed the development of polyps in patients at high risk of colon cancer and in some cases even caused polyps to regress. In another study, patients who had been diagnosed with polyps took aspirin to reduce the risk of recurrence. It has also been suggested that NSAIDs may reduce the risk of cancer of the esophagus, stomach, breast, prostate and lung.
However, NSAIDs have not been widely promoted as cancer-combating medications because the research has not been 100 percent positive. In 1996, a clinical trial called the Physicians Health Study found that taking aspirin did not reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Nearly a decade later, a study published in Journal of the American Medical Association followed thousands of women participating in the Women’s Health Study and found that aspirin did not prevent the development of breast cancer.
While the final word on NSAIDs is not in, the evidence seems to indicate that aspirin may have a protective effect against cancer. Consequently, it is appropriate that, irrespective of age, anyone at high risk of or diagnosed with breast, colon, prostate or lung cancer should take 81 milligrams of aspirin daily. The other NSAIDs may also be effective in reducing cancer risk, but they should not be used as cancer prevention unless more compelling evidence is presented documenting significant value.
Although NSAIDs are easily accessible and inexpensive, the drugs are not without side effects. Even at a low dose, aspirin can cause significant irritation of the stomach and increase risk of bleeding. Approximately 1.2 people per 1,000 taking aspirin will have a major stomach bleed annually, a risk that is much higher than the risk of dying of any cancer. Celebrex does have alower risk of bleeding, but it may increase heart attack and stroke risk. All the NSAIDs can lead to high blood pressure and kidney disease.
For men over the age of 50 and women over 65, the risk of heart attack and strokes is so high that the benefits of taking aspirin outweigh the risks. As always, it is important to discuss every element of preventive therapy with your primary care physician. Complementing healthy lifestyle changes with the appropriate medications can mean health and happiness for years to come.