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What makes this drug so special? Well, it’s inexpensive, widely available at any grocery store, non-toxic, and studies show that it increases breast cancer survival rates. It’s acetylsalicylic acid…also know simply as aspirin! A new study published in the February 16, 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggests for the first time that pre-menopausal women who take two or more aspirin each week in the years after the diagnosis of early stage breast cancer could increase their probability of survival (or prognosis) compared to women who don’t take aspirin. So, those women who took aspirin were less likely to develop metastatic spread of their breast cancer, or to die of breast cancer or other causes of death.
It is important to point out that this was a retrospective epidemiology type of study that does raise important questions but does not give definitive evidence that taking aspirin for breast cancer is a mandatory treatment. The women self-reported the use of aspirin through an annual survey over the last 20 years, and the intent of aspirin use was not necessarily to treat breast cancer. It is likely that the women taking aspirin were following recommendations from the American Heart Association and other organizations to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Having said that, since aspirin has such low toxicity in most individuals as well as a proven benefit across a range of diseases, it seems reasonable to recommend that women (and men too!) take aspirin on a regular basis as part of healthy lifestyle.
Aspirin has been available for many years and is recommended as a preventative for heart and stroke disease. There’s also some evidence that it decreases the risk of colon cancer. The mechanism of action for such a simple compound is unknown. It may relate to its anticoagulation effects that prevent circulating tumor cells from lodging in blood vessels and then growing in a vital organ. It also decreases the invasive nature of cancer cells (i.e. the process of attaching to blood vessels, working its way into the blood stream, and spreading to other organs), lowers the level of the hormone estradiol, or may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
The results from the large population-based study mentioned above involving 4106 women nurses were impressive. The investigators, Dr Michelle Holmes and others from Harvard Medical School, concluded that “aspirin use was associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer death.” Women who took an average of two-five aspirin a week were 60% less likely to develop metastatic breast cancer and 71% less likely to die of breast cancer. There was also a suggestion of a protective effect with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines besides aspirin, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin) or naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox), but this could not be demonstrated with acetaminophen (Tylenol, Bayer).
It is important to note that women who took an average of one aspirin a week (or less) as opposed to two-five had the same risk of developing metastatic breast cancer or dying from breast cancer as women who didn’t take any aspirin at all. I also want to point out that taking aspirin regularly before the diagnosis of breast cancer did not affect prognosis. Only taking aspirin after the diagnosis improved the outcome.
I take aspirin myself as a preventive medicine. Whether you take the “low dose” aspirin, a regular dose, or one of the other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) is a personal decision that is also based upon your body’s tolerance to taking these medicines without any ill effects (such as stomach upset or bleeding tendencies). If you have any questions about this, you should ask your doctor.