Can Aspirin Prevent Cancer and Cancer Deaths?

Nyedra W. Booker, PharmD, Tracy Rupp, PharmD, MPH, RD, Laura Gottschalk, PhD, and Danielle Shapiro, MD, MPH, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund

Doctors have prescribed aspirin to prevent heart attacks and stroke for many years. There is now good evidence that regular aspirin use can also prevent cancer. Experts already recommend an aspirin a day to prevent colon cancer, but aspirin may also “play a strong role in reducing death from cancer.”[1]  

Recommending Aspirin for Cancer Prevention

The U.S. Preventative Service Task Force (USPSTF), an independent group of medical experts, recommend  that people between the ages of 50 and 59 should take 81 mg of aspirin daily (which is the typical dosage of “baby” or low-dose aspirin) to prevent colon cancer. Since colon cancer develops slowly overtime, aspirin should be taken for at least 10 years.[2]

Daily aspirin is not for everyone between 50 and 59, however. For example, if you have an increased risk of bleeding because of other medication you are taking or because of a history of stomach or intestinal ulcers, kidney disease, or severe liver disease, the risks of taking aspirin daily may outweigh the benefits. 

The benefits of aspirin in preventing death from cancer are based in part on a 2016 study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which looked at the rate of cancer in two large long-term studies.  The Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up study included almost 48,000 men and more than 88,000 women.[3] The study found that people who took aspirin regularly had a slightly lower risk for overall cancer and a 19% lower risk for colon cancer. These benefits were seen after just five years of use and are statistically significant, which means they are almost definitely due to the aspirin and not to other factors.

The new study results were presented at a national cancer conference in April 2017 and go beyond the results published in 2016.[1] Women in the studies who took aspirin regularly had a 7% lower chance of dying of any cause than women who did not take regular aspirin. Men who took aspirin regularly had an 11% lower chance of dying of any cause than men who did not take regular aspirin. Dying from cancer was 7% lower in women and 15% lower in men who regularly took aspirin. Women who regularly took aspirin had an 11% lower risk of dying from breast cancer. Men who regularly took aspirin had a 23% lower risk of dying from prostate cancer.  

Aspirin can have many benefits, but since it also has risks more studies are needed to examine who is most likely to benefit and who is most likely to be harmed. The study was observational, which means that it evaluated the health of people in the “real world,” rather than a randomized clinical trial.  Since it is not possible to know as much about all the health habits and other possible influences of the thousands of people in these huge studies as is possible in a clinical trial, the conclusions are considered less certain.

What You Need to do Before Starting Aspirin Therapy

Remember that aspirin is a drug, and it has risks even at low doses. You should talk about whether taking a daily aspirin is a good idea with your doctor, so that you can discuss:

  • Your medical history and all the medicines you are currently using, whether they are prescription or over-the-counter
  • Any allergies or sensitivities you may have to aspirin
  • Any vitamins or dietary supplements you are currently taking

Aspirin should not be taken with certain other over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) because they can increase the risk of internal bleeding. These medications are called NSAIDS.  Aspiring should also not be taken daily by those who regularly use herbs and nutritional supplements.  Vitamin E, fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) and what’s known as the “four Gs”– garlic, ginger, gingko, and ginseng– can all increase your risk for bleeding when taken with aspirin and other blood thinners.[4]

If taking aspirin is not a safe option for you, there are other ways to reduce your chance of developing heart disease and cancer, without any side effects!  They include quitting smoking, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and getting up from your chair or couch regularly rather than sitting for hours without moving around. Walking or other exercising for at least 20-30 minutes each day is also helpful. However, for people at highest risk of heart disease or cancer, aspirin could truly be a lifesaver.

The Bottom Line

Regular aspirin use may prevent deaths from many causes including cancer, heart attacks, and strokes.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

Footnotes:

  1. American Association for Cancer Research News Release. Regular Aspirin Use in Associated with Lower Cancer Mortality. April 3, 2017. Available online: http://www.aacr.org/Newsroom/Pages/News-Release-Detail.aspx?ItemID=1036#.Wib80kqnGM9
  2. USPSTF. Final Update Summary: Aspirin Use to Prevent Cardiovascular Disease and Colorectal Cancer: Preventive Medication. April 2016. Available online: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/aspirin-to-prevent-cardiovascular-disease-and-cancer
  3. Cao Y, et al. Population-wide Impact of Long-term Use of Aspirin and the Risk for Cancer. JAMA Oncol. Published online March 03, 2016. DOI: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.6396
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus: Drugs, Supplements, and Herbal Information. Accessed December 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/herb_All.html