An easy way to help prevent breast cancer and increase survival in breast cancer patients may be as close as your medicine cabinet. Two new studies add to the growing body of evidence that aspirin could possibly play a role inhibiting the development and recurrence of breast cancer.

For years, researchers have examined the link between certain types of analgesics (drugs that reduce pain, fever, and inflammation) and cancer. The medications in question are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and indomethacin, and acetaminophen.

Early studies found, for example, that one aspirin per week for six months reduced a woman's chance of developing the most common type of breast cancers by 20 percent. These cancers are linked to estrogen and account for two-thirds to three-quarters of all breast cancer cases. The cancer prevention benefit was greatest in postmenopausal women. However, researchers didn't know which drug was best or the optimal dose and duration. Although ibuprofen also seemed to reduce risk, the results were not as significant as those seen with aspirin.

Aspirin and other NSAIDs limit cancer development in several ways. They inhibit an enzyme called cycoloxygenase (COX), which is linked to inflammation and pain, and therefore reduces the production of prostaglandins. When these two chemical elements are not regulated properly, they're implicated in the development of breast cancer. Aspirin and NSAIDs also reduce the growth of new blood vessels, which tumors need to bring nutrients that help them grow.

In one of the two recent studies, researchers found that regular aspirin use reduced the risk of breast cancer deaths and the likelihood of recurrence among women living one year after a breast cancer diagnosis. The more days per week the women took aspirin, the lower their risk of dying. The researchers did not begin studying the effect of aspirin until after one year. Since chemotherapy reduces blood counts, and aspirin can cause bleeding, physicians advise women not to take aspirin for 12 months after they've been diagnosed.

The other recent study found that postmenopausal women who use aspirin might have lower estrogen levels, which could potentially reduce their risk for breast or ovarian cancer.

NSAIDs can cause side effects, especially bleeding, with prolonged use. The results of these studies are very promising, but are still preliminary. Until we have more research to confirm the association between aspirin and cancer, women should not begin taking aspirin or other drugs for breast cancer prevention without their physician's guidance.


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