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Can Aspirin Prevent Breast Cancer?

Possibly, but researchers say it's too soon to endorse such a therapy

TUESDAY, May 25, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Seven a week may keep breast cancer at bay.

Seven aspirin, that is.

Researchers have found women who take aspirin on a regular basis may have a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Specifically, they had a lower risk of developing hormone receptor-positive breast tumors.

Whether this finding, which appears in the May 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, will ever translate into practical benefit for women remains to be seen.

"For prevention, the risk-benefit ratio has to be so profoundly in favor of the benefits and aspirin has a lot of side effects," said senior study author Dr. Alfred I. Neugut, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

"Would I initiate taking aspirin solely for reducing breast cancer risk? No. What will probably happen is that pharmaceutical companies or other scientists will develop safer variants on these drugs. They will take advantage of these pathways to develop specific agents that are safer," Neugut added.

Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been linked with a decrease in the risk of several cancers, including breast and colon cancer.

The drugs inhibit the production of prostaglandin, which plays a role in the production of estrogen, which, in turn, can fuel breast cancer growth.

For this study, the authors conducted interviews with 1,442 women with breast cancer and 1,420 women without breast cancer from Long Island, N.Y.

Women who had used aspirin or other NSAIDs at least once a week for six months or longer had a 20 percent lower risk of breast cancer compared with non-users. Those who had taken seven or more tablets a week had a 28 percent lower risk.

The association was weaker for ibuprofen -- 22 percent lower risk for three tablets a week or less, or 8 percent lower risk for three tablets a week or more. Acetaminophen was not associated with a lower risk.

Aspirin seemed to result in a 26 percent lower risk of hormone receptor-positive tumors versus hormone receptor-negative tumors, the researchers said.

"There have been other studies showing the protective effect of aspirin in breast cancer but none did a subset analysis to see if there was a better effect in one group," said Dr. Raymond N. DuBois, author of an accompanying editorial in the journal. He is also director of the cancer prevention program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn..

"Then there were some negative studies that showed no protection for women with breast cancer who took aspirin, so there has been a conundrum in my mind as to whether it is protective or not. This showed that most of the protection was in the positive subgroups," DuBois said.

Even if aspirin could play a role in protecting against breast cancer, this study is not enough to tell us how, researchers said.

"It's just an observational study," DuBois said. "We need to do more work to see how strong it is and what dose and when to take it and how much to take over time to get the best protection."

It may be possible to get information on aspirin use from women who are involved in studies already under way. "That should be done right away because there are thousands of women in breast cancer trials," DuBois added.

More information

Learn more about aspirin at the National Library of Medicine. For more on breast cancer, check with the National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Alfred I. Neugut, M.D., Ph.D., professor, medicine and epidemiology, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and co-director, cancer prevention, New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director, cancer prevention program, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Nashville, Tenn.; May 26, 2004, Journal of the American Medical Association
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