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Aspirin May Ward Off Pancreatic Cancer

Study finds women who use it are 43% less likely to get disease

TUESDAY, Aug. 6, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study adds to aspirin's impressive list of accomplishments by finding that women who take the drug are less likely to get cancer of the pancreas.

Aspirin's role as a preventive medication isn't a new one. It's already used to prevent heart disease, and other studies have found it may help ward off colon cancer. In the latest work, appearing in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers from the University of Minnesota report that women who use aspirin have a 43 percent lower risk of pancreatic cancer than women who don't.

"There is no one magic pill that's a cure-all, but it's encouraging that aspirin use may be protective for pancreatic cancer -- and it may tell us something about this disease for which we have no good treatment, " says study author Kristin Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. However, she cautions, this doesn't mean people should start taking large quantities of aspirin, because long-term aspirin use can cause serious side effects in some people.

Every year, more than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 30,000 die from the disease annually, making it the fourth deadliest cancer in the United States. Only 4 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can expect to survive five years. Fifty percent of patients die within three months of getting a diagnosis, says Anderson. One of the reasons the prognosis is so poor is there are very few symptoms until the disease has made its deadly spread beyond the pancreas.

For the current study, the researchers used data from the Iowa Women's Health Study, which includes extensive health information on more than 40,000 women between the ages of 55 and 69. All of the women were post-menopausal and all lived in Iowa. The researchers excluded information from women who had already developed cancer at the start of the study, and any woman who didn't provide complete answers to the questions on aspirin and other pain reliever use.

That narrowed the sample down to 28,283 women, whom Anderson and her colleagues followed from 1992 to 1999. The study volunteers were asked how often they used aspirin or an aspirin-containing product, and how often they used other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. The researchers divided their answers into four groups: never used, used once per week, used two to five times a week, or used six or more times per week.

Eighty of the women were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during the study period.

The researchers found the more often the women took aspirin, the less likely they were to get pancreatic cancer, Anderson says. Other NSAIDs didn't seem to have an effect. However, many more women used aspirin than the other products, and some of the newer NSAIDs weren't even available during the early years of the study. So, she says, there wasn't enough information to make any definitive conclusions about the other medications.

Dr. Michael Cannon, a gastroenterologist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., says this study opens the door for other studies to be done on aspirin and cancer prevention, but he says this study was limited because the data are only on women and the researchers didn't collect dosage information.

"Perhaps aspirin products may have some role in the prevention of some cancers, but people shouldn't go on aspirin without consulting their physicians because of the potential risks of aspirin," he adds.

Both Cannon and Anderson say there's little that can be done to prevent pancreatic cancer, except what is advised to help prevent all cancers: stop smoking, eat right and exercise.

What To Do

For more information on pancreatic cancer, go to the American Cancer Society, which also has a page on cancer prevention.

SOURCES: Kristin Anderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor, epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Michael Cannon, M.D., gastroenterologist, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; Aug. 7, 2002, Journal of the National Cancer Institute
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