An aspirin a day may keep more than just heart attacks, strokes and colorectal cancer at bay. It also may protect women against breast cancer, especially those who’ve gone through menopause.
Researchers from Columbia University in New York compared the use of pain relievers among 1,442 women with breast cancer and 1,420 healthy women. Overall, women who took aspirin daily (at least seven pills a week) were 28 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than women who didn’t take aspirin. One-a-week users were 20 percent less likely to develop the disease than nonusers.
In general, the protective effects were strongest among post-menopausal women.
The study also found that daily aspirin use reduced by 32 percent the incidence of tumors fueled by estrogen, which account for 70 percent to 75 percent of all breast cancers, said the study’s senior author, Dr. Alfred I. Neugut, a professor of medicine and epidemiology. There was no protective effect for tumors that weren’t sensitive to hormones.
“If this bears out, we’ll be able to develop a safe and targeted drug which will precisely protect against breast cancer without giving us the side effects of the aspirin,” which include ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding, Neugut said.
The study found that regular use of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen, sold under such brand names as Motrin and Advil, also reduced risk. But that finding was less reliable because less data was available, Neugut said. The authors found no protection from acetaminophen (Tylenol), a pain reliever lacking aspirin’s ability to block the production of the inflammation-promoting prostaglandins.
The study was published in today’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Aspirin, which is both anti-inflammatory and helps keep blood from clotting, is already used to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. It has also been shown to reduce the incidence of colon cancer. The study authors theorized that, in breast cancer, aspirin inhibits the production of prostaglandins and thereby reduces production of estrogen, which can stimulate breast tumor growth.
The findings, they say, suggest that aspirin might work well in combination with other medications prescribed to women with hormone-sensitive tumors, such as the aromatase inhibitors anastrazole (Arimidex) and letrozole (Femara).
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Raymond N. DuBois of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said that despite emerging evidence supporting aspirin’s potential, it is too soon to recommend aspirin for breast cancer prevention because doctors don’t know the optimal dose or regimen.
Dr. Christy A. Russell at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles agreed. “This is telling us that there are hints that this class of drugs can reduce your risk of ever developing breast cancer,” she said. “However, these studies are not strong enough to suggest all women should now begin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories for that prevention.”