Most of us probably have taken aspirin at some point in our lives for a common minor ailment, such as headaches, fever or muscle cramps. Research has shown this drug also to be an effective part of treatment for heart attacks and strokes.
But more recent research on aspirin suggests that it might be beneficial in yet another way — by reducing the risk of developing and dying from several types of cancer, including colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancers.
A new study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting analyzed aspirin use and cancer risk from more than 86,000 women over 32 years and nearly 44,000 men over 26 years.
Ultimately, the study showed that taking low-dose (81 mg) aspirin for six or more years — from less than 2 tablets a week up to a tablet a day — was associated with a significant decrease in cancer risk, especially in colorectal cancers: The reduction was 31 percent in women and 30 percent for men.
This data is promising, but we should keep in mind that it is observational. That means this data doesn’t prove that aspirin reduces cancer risk, because it’s possible that people who took aspirin just had healthier habits overall.
But how does this simple, everyday medication work? It fights inflammation, the immune system’s response to disease or injury. Inflammation can destroy the “bad” bacteria or eliminate injured cells, and it’s usually temporary. Think about the redness and localized swelling that happens when get a small cut or scrape on your skin. That’s the result of the body responding to the threat of foreign bacteria and sending white blood cells to the injury to take care of the potential problem.
But when inflammation is chronic, lasting for months or even years because of injury or disease, it can become a perfect environment for many types of cancer cells to develop and thrive. By blocking the body’s ability to increase inflammation in the body, aspirin might help lower cancer risk or the spread of the disease.
Before you start taking aspirin, be aware that as with any medication, using it comes with risks. The most common risks of regular aspirin use include an upset stomach, stomach ulcers and stomach bleeding. The risk of these side effects increases if you are older, drink alcohol regularly, or take certain other medications.
In short, regular aspirin use shows promise for reducing cancer risk, but it might not be appropriate for everyone. If you’re concerned about your risk and wondering whether you should try a regular aspirin regimen, speak with your doctor first. He or she can help you assess whether the benefits might outweigh the drawbacks.
Jill Kolesar is a clinical pharmacologist and co-leader of the UK Markey Cancer Center Molecular Tumor Board.