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September 2014

Aspirin and Ovarian Cancer: A Possible Pill for Prevention?

Aspirin can help with a number of health problems. It can relieve pain. It can lower a fever. It can even prevent a heart attack or stroke. More recently, scientists have found another possible benefit. It may help stop ovarian cancer.

An aspirin a day?

Close view of a owman's hannds. One is holing two pills and the other holds a glass of water.

Aspirin is a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). It’s made from the bark of a willow tree, and it is best known as a pain reliever. But some years ago researchers found it could break up blood clots. Many people now take a daily dose of aspirin to prevent heart problems.

Can aspirin work against cancer, too? Some research suggests yes. Past studies have linked it to a lower chance for colorectal cancer. A more recent review says it may prevent ovarian cancer.

Researchers looked at data from 12 studies on ovarian cancer. They focused their attention on NSAID use. Out of more than 18,000 women, those who took aspirin every day had a lower risk for ovarian cancer. They were 20% less likely to develop the disease. This result remained even after researchers looked at other factors. Those included age, a family history of ovarian cancer, and body weight.

What’s behind this link?

When you take aspirin, it blocks your body’s ability to make certain enzymes. These enzymes are called COX-1 and COX-2 for short. They play a major role in inflammation. That’s your body’s normal reaction to injury and infection.

Inflammation helps your body heal. It normally stops once you are better. But sometimes it can continue. This long-term inflammation may cause changes in your cells. That, in turn, may lead to cancer. Aspirin’s effect on the COX-1 and 2 enzymes may stifle chronic inflammation. As a result, it may prevent ovarian cancer.

Despite this effect, experts don’t yet recommend that women take aspirin every day to stop ovarian cancer. Why? For one, the drug can have side effects. It may irritate the stomach’s lining. This irritation can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines. Experts also aren’t sure what amount of aspirin would be best.

Another reason for their reluctance: Research isn’t clear cut. Some studies have shown aspirin to work against cancer. Others have found no such connection. What’s more, some experts dismiss the results because of the way the review was structured. For example, some studies were small and based on personal recall of aspirin use.

It’s still too soon to say for sure that aspirin prevents any type of cancer. But scientists continue to look at what it may be able to do. For example, aspirin may be especially helpful for women at high risk for ovarian cancer. In the meantime, talk with your doctor first before deciding to take aspirin regularly.

 

Ovarian cancer can be hard to detect early. There is no screening test for it. So it’s best to know if you are at high risk for the disease. Take this risk assessment and discuss the results with your doctor.