Can a daily aspirin reduce cancer risk?

August 23, 2017 | by Samir Undevia, MD

Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Feeling achy? Take an aspirin.  Notice a fever is coming on? Take an aspirin. There is a reason aspirin is the most common medicine in our cabinet – aspirin treats many of our most common ailments.

As the first class of medicines called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin blocks key enzymes that cause inflammation and trigger the formation of blood clots. This is why aspirin is known to lower the risk of a second heart attack when a person has a 10 percent or greater risk of having one.

Doctors are continuing to discover new uses for the over-the-counter drug. In addition to helping to lower the risk for a heart attack, some researchers are saying a low-dose or baby aspirin can help prevent certain cancers.

Studies began in 2016 when the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) released a recommendation stating regular low-dose aspirin use by some people between the ages of 50 and 59 who are at greater risk, can help to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and colorectal cancer. Researchers estimated that regular aspirin use could prevent nearly 11 percent of colorectal cancers, and 8 percent of gastrointestinal cancers, diagnosed in the United States each year.

A year later, a new study published in the journal Breast Cancer Research discovered that low-dose aspirin taken at least three times a week can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer in certain women. In the 23 percent of women who reported using low-dose aspirin regularly, researchers saw a 20 percent reduction in the risk of developing HR-positive/HER2 negative breast cancer, some of the most common forms of the disease. However, experts say it is too soon to recommend women start taking low-dose aspirin to reduce breast cancer risk. 

Another study released in April found strong evidence that long-term regular aspirin use may reduce the chances of dying from breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers. Again, the strongest connection was with colorectal cancer, in which there was a 30 percent lower risk of developing the disease among regular aspirin takers. 

This doesn’t mean that you should start popping baby aspirins three times a week. Regular aspirin use can cause serious health problems and not everyone can take it, particularly if you are at high risk for ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. 

Side effects of aspirin include risk of allergy, general bleeding, stomach irritation and bleeding, and stroke-related bleeding into the brain.

Don’t start aspirin on your own. If you are wondering whether an aspirin a day is right for you to be heart healthy and reduce your risk of cancer, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks. 

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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