Aspirin adds cancer prevention to its impressive bow

If you’re in my age bracket (not quite 60) your childhood memory of painkillers is probably limited to two or three brand names. There was the paracetamol-based Bex, or the aspirin-based Aspro or Disprin. 

They’re the ones that loomed large in my childhood at least. We never had Bex. Perhaps my industrial chemist dad was ahead of the curve when it came to the danger of another of its ingredients. As a kid, if I had a headache, Disprin was my preference. It was dissolvable, meaning no pill swallowing was required, and I actually liked the taste, a rare thing in medicines.

Unlike Bex, aspirin remains in common use today, although it’s perhaps not as popular as a painkiller now. The development of ibuprofen has changed that game considerably. 

Aspirin’s use has, of course, spread beyond being an everyday painkiller. It is recommended for lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke in some patients. (Note the word, ‘some’ here. Do not use aspirin for this purpose unless advised by a doctor.) 

And now, new research into aspirin indicates it may help lower the risk of some cancers.

A study published in the journal Cancer suggests aspirin may play a role in colorectal cancer prevention. It indicated that cancer patients who took daily aspirin doses had a lower rate of metastasis to the lymph nodes. These patients also displayed a stronger immune response to their tumours.

Aspirin and its ability to surprise

Study co-author Marco Scarpa, a researcher at the University of Padova, was surprised by the findings. “It is a rather unexpected effect, because aspirin is mainly used as an anti-inflammatory drug,” Dr Scarpa said. 

According to Dr Scarpa, aspirin in this case has added another string to its already impressive bow. It seems aspirin’s new ‘trick’ involves stimulating the immune system’s surveillance response. In turn this can then prevent or delay the progression of colorectal cancer. 

Several previous studies have also suggested a possible link between aspirin and colorectal cancer prevention and delay. However, despite this new study adding further weight to the evidence, the mechanism by which aspirin does this is still largely unknown. Without that knowledge, it’s difficult to predict which patients will benefit most. 

However, the new research may have provided some clues. The researchers found lower rates of metastasis to the lymph nodes in patients taking a daily low dose of aspirin. And they also had higher numbers of immune cells that had infiltrated the tumours. 

It is this higher level of infiltration that is thought to be linked to slower cancer progression. This includes the lower rate of spread to the lymph nodes. Aspirin may help this by allowing immune cells to enter the tumour mass and fight the cancerous cells more effectively. 

A balancing act

Just as with its use for heart attack and stroke prevention, a cautious approach is required with aspirin and cancer. “It has to be balanced with the risks,” says oncologist Jeff Meyerhardt, co-director of the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Aspirin reduces blood clotting, making one of those risks the possibility of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. 

With further research, it is hoped that the mechanism of aspirin’s role in cancer prevention will be pinpointed, and the right balance of risks achieved. 

Are you an aspirin user? Were you aware of its potential use to prevent cancer? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Cancer cure one step closer

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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