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Can an aspirin a day keep cancer at bay?

Susan Watts | 15:49 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The latest news about the protective effect of aspirin against a range of common cancers is cause for quiet celebration.

Anyone around 45 years of age now has another potential weapon to help minimise their risk of developing cancer. We already know it's important to avoid becoming overweight and drinking too much alcohol, now taking a daily dose of aspirin looks a sensible step to take for many.

If the scientists behind this latest research are right, then taking just 75mg of aspirin for five years or more can have a dramatic effect.

In their paper, published in The Lancet, a team from Oxford University and other centres looked at data from some 25,000 patients, mostly from the UK.

The figures are impressive, with aspirin cutting overall cancer deaths by at least one fifth over 20 years.

Apparently, aspirin is best absorbed if taken at night and with calcium. So a 75mg dose along with a glass of milk (which might also dampen down stomach irritation) looks likely to become a common bedtime ritual. Though you have to stick at it for at least five years to see any benefit, the researchers say.

They stop short of urging healthy people to take aspirin because it is known to increase the risk of internal bleeding. But they say the new findings shift the risk-benefit balance in favour of taking it.

Of course there are some who should not just go ahead and self-medicate. In fact, everyone is being advised to talk to their GP first.

Aspirin can interact with other medicines, and anyone under 16; people prone to asthma, allergies, liver, kidney or digestive problems; pregnant or breast-feeding women and those with a stomach ulcer or bleeding disorders should certainly not start taking aspirin without professional advice.

Talking to the lead researcher, Professor Peter Rothwell of Oxford University, I wondered how he thinks aspirin performs its apparently remarkable feat.

He reminded me of our body's natural ability to stop the uncontrollable growth of cells, which is essentially what cancer is.

This cell death, or "apoptosis", is a normal, programmed process by which cells die to allow new, healthy tissue to grow.

"There's great interest in the effect of aspirin on the control of the development of cells that are beginning to be abnormal. Aspirin enhances this process... the ability of cells to self-regulate," he said.

He even hinted that aspirin might have an effect against cancers that have already started to develop, that is as a potential treatment as well as a preventative: "We should have more data on that in the next few months."

Prof Rothwell wants the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), or perhaps the cancer charities, to come up with guidelines to help people decide if they should take aspirin everyday, or not.

He does not think advice should come from the scientists who did the work.

"I think some kind of national advice would be helpful. In general, there aren't situations where we insist... even on folic acid we only advise women to take it. On personal decisions about prevention, it's difficult to be dogmatic, but I'm 46 and I take aspirin myself", Prof Rothwell said.

So far, Cancer Research UK is sounding a cautious welcome to the research.

Evidence to support the incredible value of aspirin has been increasing in recent years. We already knew it could be helpful for some people to protect against heart disease and stroke. Prof Rothwell says its protective signal for cancer is even stronger.

And encouragingly, it seems to work especially well against so-called adenocarcinomas. These are cancers linked to glandular tissue, and a type that is on the increase.


  • Comment number 1.

    the modern doctor is risk averse and always wary of legal action and so has to cover himself in saying 'it could cause internal bleeding' but it is a very small risk and the advantages well outweigh the risks....

  • Comment number 2.

    As one interested in this story, sadly in youth deemed allergic, having listened to the whole thing being rendered a pot-boiler by Jeremy Vine on his R2 show, I decided to read around a bit lest it not be done proper justice by more than one.

    'So far, Cancer Research UK is sounding a cautious welcome to the research.'

    Hence worth noting the update:

    Maybe worth a period of cautious reflection before rushing into anything?

    Not all may return to first flush posts before pouncing on their GPs.

  • Comment number 3.

    One consideration is the effect this might have on future populations who seemingly are being offered more and more 'cures' for previously fatal illnesses only to (maybe) live longer and eventually fall prey to dementia (note I don't say Alzheimer's disease) The chances of having some form of dementia when you live beyond 85 start to increase quite sharply. I can see the possible benefits for younger people but it may mean succumbing to a fate over which you lose personal control compared with a slightly sooner fate over which you have much more control. As with many things in life length does not equal quality.

  • Comment number 4.


    Some worthy mentioned, in passing, that Aspirin can cause brain bleeding, as well as stomach. He didn't explain the mechanism . . .

  • Comment number 5.

    "We should have more data on that in the next few months"
    Is this the mantra of all such research?


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