Will taking an aspirin a day cut the risk of breast cancer?


Last updated at 11:31 07 March 2008

Women could soon be advised that taking aspirin every day will cut their risk of developing breast cancer, scientists said today.

Experts analysed 21 studies and found that non- steroidal antiinflammatory drugs - the class of common painkiller which also includes ibuprofen - could ward off the disease.

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The research also suggested that these drugs could help treat women already diagnosed with breast cancer.

However, the scientists warned that more research is needed to discover whether the potential benefits outweigh side-effects such as stomach ulcers and even heart disease.

They added that it is important to establish the ideal dose and duration before starting a nationwide push to get women to take the drugs, usually known by the acronym NSAIDs.

Ian Fentiman, a professor of oncology at Guy's and St Thomas' hospital trust in London, carried out the study, which was published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice.

He said: "Our review of research published over the last 27 years suggests that, in addition to possible prevention, there may also be a role for NSAIDs in the treatment of women with established breast cancer.

"NSAID use could be combined with hormone therapy or used to relieve symptoms.

"Having weighed up the findings from over 20 studies, we have concluded that NSAIDs may well offer significant protection against developing breast cancer in the first place and may provide a useful addition to the treatment currently available to women who already have the disease."

However, Dr Fentiman added: "Our review did not look at the potential side-effects of using NSAIDs on a regular basis. These can include gastrointestinal bleeding and perforation, which can carry a significant risk of ill-health and death.

"It would be essential to take these negative effects into account before we could justify routinely using NSAIDs like aspirin to prevent breast cancer.

"We are not advocating that women take these non-prescription drugs routinely until the benefits and risks are clearer.

"But our findings clearly indicate that these popular over-the counter drugs could, if used correctly, play an important role in preventing and treating breast cancer."

Any official advice urging women to take anti-inflammatory drugs would be controversial.

In 2006, European regulators said that high doses could be associated with a small increased risk of heart attacks or strokes when taken over a long period of time.

Millions of Britons use the drugs for a range of conditions, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Kat Arney, of Cancer Research UK, cautiously welcomed the research.

"Drugs like aspirin are often touted as "wonder drugs" and we have seen repeatedly from studies like this that there can be a range of positive effects," she said.

"But, as with any drug there can be significant side- effects from long-term or heavy use - such as stomach ulcers - so we certainly wouldn't recommend that people take large doses without medical advice. More research is needed to investigate how the side-effects can be balanced with the benefits of these drugs."

Previous studies have credited aspirin with a range of health benefits.

Research last year suggested regularly taking the drug can reduce the risk of a common form of skin cancer by 90 per cent, ovarian cancer by 40 per cent and prostate cancer by 20 per cent.

Millions of heart disease and stroke survivors take aspirin because it thins the blood and can stop a repeat attack. This thinning means it can also protect against DVT - deep-vein thrombosis.

In addition, research has shown that arthritis sufferers who take aspirin are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

It also reduces the risk of preeclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy.

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