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News » Filed under: Prevention/Early Detection

Daily Aspirin Use May Lower Cancer Death Risk, Study Finds

Article date: December 7, 2010

By Rebecca V. Snowden

Taking aspirin regularly may cut your risk of dying from certain cancers by as much as 21%, according to findings from a large study published today in The Lancet. Previous studies have found that taking a low-dose aspirin tablet daily can lower the risk of getting and dying from colon cancer; this is the first study to show the drug may protect against other cancers as well. However, you shouldn’t start taking aspirin for this reason before talking to your doctor. Even a low-dose of aspirin ups your risk of gastrointestinal bleeding.

“This study provides important new evidence that long-term daily aspirin use may lower mortality from certain cancers in addition to colorectal cancer,” said Eric Jacobs, PhD, American Cancer Society strategic director of pharmacoepidemiology. However, the potentially severe side effects mean "it would be premature to recommend people start taking aspirin specifically to prevent cancer," he notes.

What This Study Found

The study, which was led by researchers from John Radcliffe Hospital and the University of Oxford, was based on data from 8 clinical trials, which tracked a group 25,570 patients, some of whom were randomly assigned to take a daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks or vascular disease. Patients in these studies were treated with aspirin for up to 9 years.

After 5 years, the researchers found that those patients who were taking aspirin regularly had a 21% lower risk of dying from cancer compared to those not taking the drug. At 20 years’ follow-up, the aspirin takers had a 20% fewer deaths from solid tumor cancers compared to the non-users.

The reduction in deaths for specific cancers was:

  • 30% for lung cancer,
  • 40% for colorectal cancer, and
  • 60% for esophageal cancer.

Based on the data, it wasn’t clear whether there was a protective effect for other types of cancer, such as breast, prostate, brain or pancreatic.

The researchers saw this benefit regardless of age, sex, aspirin dose, or smoking status. The benefit appeared to increase the longer patients were taking the drug. However, the study had a few limitations. Only one-third of the study participants were women, so it's not clear whether aspirin has any effect on gynecological or breast cancers. And the study did not report on side effects (like bleeding) from aspirin use.

Should You Start Taking Aspirin?

While these results are promising, experts agree it’s too early to start raiding the medicine cabinet.

“Many people may wonder if they should start taking aspirin tomorrow,” says Jacobs. “It’s important to first discuss aspirin use with your doctor who knows your personal medical history. Decisions about aspirin use should be made by balancing the risks against the benefits.”

Taking aspirin regularly can have serious side effects, including stomach bleeding and irritation. People with a history of gastrointestinal problems are at especially high risk for these problems, but they can occur in anyone.

“While these results about cancer mortality could influence future clinical guidelines, this is a very new study,” says Jacobs. “It will take time for expert guidelines committees to carefully consider these new results together with the existing evidence and consider for whom the benefits of aspirin use are likely to outweigh the risks.”

More research is clearly needed. The authors plan to look more closely at the effects of daily aspirin on women and to gather more data on long-term usage of the drug.

In the meantime, it’s important to follow cancer screening guidelines. To find out which tests you need, take a look at this helpful tool, which outlines screening recommendations based on your age.

Citation: “Effect of daily aspirin on long-term risk of death due to cancer: analysis of individual patient data from randomised trials.” Published December 7, 2010 in The Lancet. First author: Peter M. Rothwell, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

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