Can aspirin work its wonders for preventing cancer?
Doctors have valued aspirin’s healing ability for centuries. Its longevity and versatility as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory has led some to advertise it as a “wonderful drug.” Aspirin is used to relieve headaches and arthritis. Helps reduce fever and relieve toothache. Because aspirin thins the blood, doctors may recommend it to some patients to help prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack. Now, there is mounting evidence that a regimen of aspirin can also help reduce the risk of some types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. “Recent studies have shown that use of aspirin for six or more years has resulted in a reduced risk of colorectal and other types of gastrointestinal cancer,” says Dr. Jeffrey Weber, MD, a gastroenterologist and chief medical officer at our hospital near Phoenix. “
So how can the birth control pills you take for headache relief also help reduce your risk of cancer? Aspirin, made from acetylsalicylic acid, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a class of medications used to reduce pain and inflammation. These drugs work by targeting enzymes known as cyclooxygenase (COX). Two types of this enzyme, COX1 and COX2, help make substances in the body that contribute to inflammation, a common response to injury or disease. When inflammation becomes chronic, the DNA of cells in the inflamed area can be damaged, which in turn can lead to serious diseases, such as colitis or cancer. “It is thought that prolonged inflammation can cause changes in cells, which can affect their tendency to become malignant,” says Dr. Webber. “This appears to be particularly true with regard to the formation of colon polyps and colon cancer.” Long-term use of aspirin can reduce inflammation that sometimes leads to cancer. Research also shows that aspirin can help reduce the production of a gene called c-Myc, a “key regulatory” protein that helps control cell growth and division. c-Myc protein is an oncogene, which has the ability to transform a healthy cell into a cancerous cell.
In a 2016 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,Researchers who studied aspirin use in 135,000 patients concluded that “Long-term aspirin use was associated with modestly but significantly reduced overall cancer risk, particularly gastrointestinal tumors. Regular aspirin use can prevent a significant proportion of colorectal cancers.” Two studies in 2011 also concluded that aspirin can help reduce cancer risks. One such study, in patients with Lynch syndrome, an inherited condition that increases the risk of colorectal cancer, concluded that the aspirin regimen “significantly reduces the incidence of cancer … in hereditary carriers of colorectal cancer.” The other study, a review of several studies involving more than 660,000 men and women, found “
Consult your doctor
But before taking a daily aspirin, check with your doctor. Aspirin is a strong acid and patients who take daily doses can develop side effects. “Daily aspirin use is not without significant risks,” says Dr. Webber. “The risks are mainly in the digestive system, where aspirin can cause ulcers in the stomach, intestines and colon. In addition, aspirin will increase bleeding, putting people at risk of gastrointestinal bleeding or bleeding from trauma, especially head trauma.” Experts also urge parents not to give aspirin to babies and warn breastfeeding mothers that the drug can pass to babies through breast milk.
However, experts believe that taking a daily aspirin can have many benefits for some people. The American Heart Association recommends that people at high risk of a heart attack speak with their doctor about taking low-dose aspirin to help reduce the risk of blood clots that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Researchers at the University of Southern California describe aspirin as an inexpensive option that can protect against heart disease and certain types of cancer. “As the United States works to advance the triple goals of better care, better health, and smarter spending, ensuring patients have access to effective preventive care will be critical,” the researchers say in a paper on their findings. “Given the remarkable preventive efficacy of aspirin, it is a rare example of a technology that can produce fewer disease and better long-term health outcomes for Americans at a low price.”
Learn more about treatments for colorectal cancer.