It's a common medication with uncommon benefits. Aspirin is one of the most widely used drugs in the world. And a new study just out shows that one low-dose aspirin a day - about 80 milligrams - can significantly reduce the risk of death from some common forms of cancer. But there are some precautions you ought to know about.
The results came while researchers were studying 25,000 people taking a daily low dose of aspirin to prevent heart disease. But the researchers found that aspirin was also doing something else. It was reducing the death rate from some cancers. The metanalysis (study of many other studies) was done at Oxford University in Britain by Dr. Peter Rothwell.
"What we found was - in the trials where people were taking aspirin for four, five, six, seven years on average - the risk of dying from cancer was reduced by about 25 percent," said Dr. Rothwell.
In other words, for every 1,000 people who took a low-dose of aspirin, daily for at least four years, 23 people died from cancer. Compare that to 30 out of every 1,000 people who died from cancer in the group not taking a daily aspirin. The drug was especially effective in preventing deaths from colorectal cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the esophagus.
While aspirin has proven benefits, doctors warn that aspirin can also cause serious side effects.
"As a rule of thumb, I wouldn't advise anybody anywhere to take aspirin by themselves," noted Dr. Elmer Huerta, a past president of the American Cancer Society and a cancer specialist at the Washington Hospital Center. "There are certain groups of people who are more sensitive to the side effects of aspirin. They develop gastritis and ulcers and may end up in the emergency room with severe gastrointestinal bleeding."
Dr. Huerta says there are many other reasons people should not take aspirin. It could react negatively with other medications a patient is taking, and he says, patients who already have cancer should not take aspirin without first consulting their doctors. And while there are studies that show that aspirin might decrease the incidents of polyps in the colon and the cancers that might result from them, this study does not show that aspirin actually prevents cancer.
"The study has been designed to study mortality, not incidents," added Dr. Huerta.
Dr. Huerta says more large studies need to be done to find out how aspirin interacts with cancer cells. These studies would need to be randomized, assigning people by chance to the experimental group or to the control group, and would have to follow the people participating for at least 10 years.