Should you take aspirin to prevent or treat cancer?

Earlier this week, three studies in the medical journal The Lancet (here, here and here, no subscription required) co-authored by researcher Peter M. Rothwell of the University of Oxford in England and an accompanying comment (subscription required) by Andrew Chan and Nancy Cook of the Harvard Medical School all detailed results suggesting that a daily dose of aspirin can prevent cancer -- or at least slow its progress.

So does this mean health-conscious types should pop a Bayer every morning? Possibly, but not necessarily, said Dr. Jack Jacoub, a medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley.

Jacoub told Booster Shots on Wednesday that a daily aspirin is already known to prevent colorectal cancer in certain high-risk groups -- and is already recommended in some cases. But for patients at a normal risk for colon or other cancers, the recommendation is more controversial. Data aren’t as readily available showing a positive effect on other cancers, and aren’t as consistent. There are also side effects associated with aspirin, including, most notably, bleeding.

And while studies have revealed a possible mechanism for aspirin’s anti-cancer effect in the colon, scientists aren’t exactly sure why it might or might not slow other cancers. “It probably reflects that cancer ... creates a state of inflammation in the body,” Jacoub said, noting that cancer also promotes blood clotting. Aspirin’s ability to combat both suggests why it might help fight cancer, too.


Jacoub, who treats patients with breast, lung and colorectal cancer, recommends daily aspirin for patients at high risk for colorectal cancer, and recommends that his other patients who are already on aspirin therapy for other conditions keep it up, he said.

He doesn’t yet recommend daily aspirin for most people beyond those groups. But as evidence builds, he said, that might change. “This is fairly good quality data that’s been published, he said. “Perhaps this will change the paradigm.”