Aspirin has been a staple in American medicine cabinets for almost 120 years to fight pain. But the effective component of aspirin, salicylic acid, has been used since the ancient Egyptians who used bark from the willow tree — which contained salicylic acid — to ease aches and reduce fever. The Greek physician Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, wrote of using willow bark to relieve pain.
In the 20th century, aspirin was found to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and many doctors began recommending that their patients take a daily baby aspirin. Further studies have found aspirin may help prevent other diseases, including Alzheimer's.
But of the up to 1,000 clinical trials conducted each year, many are finding that aspirin can slow or prevent one of mankind's deadliest diseases: cancer. While the mechanism is still debated, some experts say aspirin reduces the inflammation that drives cancer.
Studies have shown that aspirin is effective in fighting the following forms of cancer:
Gastrointestinal. In a study of more than 130,000 adults that spanned three decades, Harvard researchers found that aspirin lowered the risk of colon cancer 31 percent for women and 30 percent for men who took it regularly on a long-term basis.
An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients who used aspirin after being diagnosed with colon cancer had a 29 percent lower risk of dying during the study than aspirin nonusers. In addition, those who used aspirin for the first time after a diagnosis of colon cancer reduced their risk of colorectal cancer death by 47 percent.
Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University may have discovered the mechanism. They knew that platelets, the blood cells involved with clotting, promoted spread of cancer by releasing chemicals that increased the growth of cancerous cells and also caused a surge in proteins that regulate the development of tumors.
The researchers combined platelets with three groups of cancer cells: metastatic colon cancer (cells that have spread outside the colon), nonmetastatic colon cancer (cells growing only within the colon), and nonmetastatic pancreatic cancer cells. When they added aspirin to the mixture, they found that the platelets were no longer able to stimulate growth and replication in the pancreatic and nonmetastatic colon cancer cells.
Prostate. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that taking three or more aspirin tablets a week reduced the risk of dying by 39 percent among men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The study, which spanned more than three decades, also found the risk of getting a lethal prostate cancer dropped by 24 percent in healthy men who took aspirin.
Researchers speculate that aspirin's ability to repress platelets in the blood — the same reason aspirin can cause bleeding — might allow the immune system to recognize cancer more readily and destroy it.
Pancreatic. A single low-dose aspirin daily slashes the risk of deadly pancreatic cancer, according to a study at the Yale School of Public Health. Taking aspirin every day for only three years cut risk by 48 percent. Study participants who took aspirin ranging in daily dosages from 75 to 325 milligrams for 20 years lowered their risk by 60 percent.
Lung. Aspirin protects against deadly lung cancer, even in smokers. A Chinese study of more than 1,200 women published in the journal Lung Cancer found that women who took aspirin — defined as at least twice a week for a month or longer — reduced their risk of developing lung cancer by at least 50 percent when compared to nonaspirin users. The longer women used aspirin, the lower their risk. Smokers may benefit the most: Aspirin reduced their risk of developing lung cancer by 62 percent.
Melanoma. A daily aspirin lowers the risk of the deadly skin cancer melanoma in postmenopausal women by 21 percent when compared to women who didn't take it. Stanford University researchers observed almost 60,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79 and found that those women who took aspirin for at least five years lowered their risk by 30 percent.
Head and neck. A single aspirin taken as infrequently as once a month can decrease the risk of developing head and neck cancer by 22 percent, according to researchers at Queen's University in Belfast who studied the effects of taking aspirin and ibuprofen on head and neck cancers. They found that the over-the-counter painkiller was most effective in preventing throat cancer, and that people aged 55 to 74 who took aspirin weekly or once a month cut their risk "significantly."
Breast. Aspirin can cut the risk of breast cancer by almost half in women with Type 2 diabetes, say Taiwan researchers. The study of almost 149,000 women found that taking 75 to 165 milligrams of aspirin daily (a "baby" aspirin is 81 milligrams) reduced their risk by 18 percent compared to those who did not take the pain reliever. Those who took a high-dose aspirin had even better results — over the 14-year study period, their risk was reduced by 47 percent.
Although aspirin is considered safe, it is still a drug and can cause side effects which include an increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers.
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