Rethinking Healthcare

Aspirin may fight breast cancer or may not

Posting in Cancer

What Holmes found was those breast cancer patients who reported they were routinely taking aspirin, usually a low-dose tablet for heart health, had fewer recurrences of the disease.

A lot of women are going to be excited, and rightly so, over a study just published at the Journal of Clinical Oncology indicating aspirin may impact survival rates from breast cancer.

(Bayer Leverkeusen, right, currently tops the table in the German Bundesliga. This does not mean they will win the title this spring.)

But the result also offers a teaching moment on how observations become treatments. It is a long and winding road.

The aspirin study is, for now, only an observation. Michelle Holmes and her Harvard colleagues looked at data from the Nurses Health Study, a population study of 238,000 nurses that began in 1976,

In that group 341 died of breast cancer, and 400 had a re-occurrence of the cancer, there or elsewhere. What Holmes found was those who reported they were routinely taking aspirin, usually a low-dose tablet for heart health, had fewer recurrences of the disease. There were similar results with other common pain relievers like ibuprofen.

"Cancer is an inflammatory disease and aspirin is an anti-inflammatory," Holmes commented. At which point CureToday wrote, "add an aspirin a day to your list."

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

What Holmes has found is a clue, an avenue for investigation. She admits she hasn't proven anything.

How much aspirin should be taken? When? How does this work? Does this work? Will this work with all sorts of people, or is this just one of those statistical anomolies you find in databases -- after all we're talking of just 400 metastatic breast cancers out of 238,000 people.

A hypothesis is just the start of study, not its end. Most observations like this don't pan out. But a few do. It would be great if this were one of the few. But caution is required.

Aspirin has side effects. Aspirin can wear away the stomach lining, leading to ulcers. It can cause nasal congestion. These risks are underappreciated. Justin Schwan writes that "aspirin may kill as many people as it saves."

The wellness fringe makes other claims against aspirin. These include deadening the nerves and "polluting the blood." I can't comment on those claims, but what's true is that aspirin is a drug and, like any drug, needs to be treated with respect, not popped like a chocolate whenever a news story says eat it.

A personal note. I am now nearly 10 years older than my father was when he had his first heart attack. At my doctor's recommendation I take an aspirin each day, alongside other drugs and supplements, and my doctor said yesterday my blood pressure is normal.

But is that because of the aspirin, or could the apple I'm eating at my desk have more to do with it? I don't know.

It is worth looking into, however.  (Oh, and Leverkusen's unofficial nickname is "neverkusen," because like most hypotheses they tend to fail at the end.)

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure