By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
March 28, 2012
According to studies published last week in The Lancet, taking a daily dose of aspirin can reduce the risk of cancer.
The new studies, led by Peter Rothwell of Britain's Oxford University, found that low-dose aspirin has a short-term benefit in preventing cancer and can reduce the risk of some cancers by as much as 50 percent.
For further clarification, we turned to Dr. Howard Kaufman, director of the Rush University Cancer Center at Rush University Medical Center. His primary research interest is melanoma and tumor immunotherapy, and he has more than 120 articles and other publications to his credit. Here's what he had to say about this cheap, over-the-counter pill that's in nearly everyone's medicine chest:
Q. What have we learned from these findings?
A. I think we've suspected aspirin had a beneficial role to play in preventing cancer, and these two long-term studies go a long way in supporting that notion. Some studies in the United States haven't found this, but these recent studies are very well-designed and very compelling. A lot of us in the field are excited about the findings.
Q. How will this change things?
A. The good news: We have something that could help prevent cancer. But like all medications, there are side effects, such as stomach bleeding, peptic ulcers and hemorrhagic stroke in the brain. So, we're not quite ready to prescribe this for everyone. We have to consider the cancer risk vs. the risk of stroke or a bleeding disorder.
Q. Did the studies find that an aspirin works on particular cancers?
A. The greatest effect was seen in colorectal cancer but some effect was seen in many other types of cancer. This included some of the most common and serious cancers, such as lung, breast and prostate cancers.
Q. So who should take aspirin?
A. I think we can consider individuals with a high risk for or strong family history of colon cancer, would be a good candidate. ... However, if a patient has a peptic ulcer or known bleeding problems then the risks aren't worth the potential benefits.
Q. Can you explain how aspirin works in preventing cancer?
A. Although we do not fully understand the mechanism yet, there's been interesting research suggesting that aspirin may help prevent cancer by blocking chronic inflammation. When you cut yourself, your body uses a process called acute inflammation to heal and repair itself. But with cancer, the type of inflammation is not completely "normal." We refer to this as chronic inflammation that continues without stopping. Aspirin may lower the rate of this chronic inflammation, and this may prevent the cancers from growing.
Q. In recent years aspirin has been credited with reducing heart disease, asthma and Parkinson's disease. How come people don't consider this a wonder drug?
A. It is remarkable. It has been difficult to fund research in cancer prevention — and particularly with aspirin — because prevention studies take a long time to complete, cost a lot of money to perform and aspirin is a relatively inexpensive and widely available drug. Thus, there's not a lot of financial incentive to pursue this line of research.
Q. I know what to do to cut my chances of having a cardiac episode — keep weight, blood pressure and cholesterol under control, don't smoke, and exercise. What can we do to reduce the odds of a biopsy coming back positive?
A. First, you have to assess the risk, such as personal medical history, use of tobacco and alcohol and the presence of cancer in first-degree relatives. ... Then, a screening plan can be organized for an individual patient based on their risk. ... You should be having a conversation with your doctor, based on your health and family history.
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