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Aspirin use may reduce risk of certain cancers

Most of us have likely taken aspirin at some point in our lives for a common minor ailment like headaches, fever or muscle cramps. Research has also shown this drug to be an effective part of treatment for heart attacks and strokes.

But more recent research on aspirin suggests it may be beneficial in yet another way—by reducing the risk of developing and dying from several types of cancer, including colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancers.

While this information is promising, it is observational. That means this data does not prove aspirin reduces cancer risk, since it’s possible that people who took aspirin just had healthier habits overall.

How does aspirin work? It fights inflammation, the immune system’s response to disease or injury. Inflammation can destroy the “bad” bacteria or eliminate injured cells and is usually temporary. Think about the redness and localized swelling from a small cut or abrasion on your skin—that’s the result of the body responding to the threat of foreign bacteria and sending white blood cells to the injury to take care of the potential problem.

But when inflammation is chronic, lasting for months or even years due to injury or disease, it can become a perfect environment for many types of cancer cells to develop and thrive. By blocking the body’s ability to increase inflammation in the body, aspirin may help reduce cancer risk or the spread of the disease.

Before you start taking aspirin, be aware that like any medication, using it comes with risks. The most common risks of regular aspirin use include an upset stomach, stomach ulcers and stomach bleeding. The risk for these side effects increases if you are older, drink alcohol regularly or take certain other medications.

While regular aspirin use shows promise for reducing cancer risk, it may not be appropriate for everyone. If you’re concerned about your risk and wondering if you should try a regular aspirin regimen, talk with your doctor first. KL

Jill Kolesar is a clinical pharmacologist and co-leader of the UK Markey Cancer Center Molecular Tumor Board.

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