Taking aspirin after being diagnosed with bowel cancer can reduce the chance of dying from the disease by 30 per cent, new research shows today.
The study*, published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that bowel cancer patients who took a daily dose of aspirin for at least nine months after their diagnosis had cut their chance of dying from the disease by 30 per cent.**
Researchers added that bowel cancer patients who took aspirin for any length of time post-diagnosis had a 23 per cent less chance of dying from bowel cancer compared with patients who took no aspirin at all.
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK – with around 41,000 new cases of the disease a year. But bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK after lung cancer – around 16,000 people died of the disease in 2010 in the UK.
The study looked at 4,500 bowel cancer patients from the Eindhoven Cancer Registry in the Netherlands diagnosed between 1998 and 2007. A quarter of patients were not aspirin users, a further quarter only took aspirin after being diagnosed with bowel cancer and the remaining group took aspirin both before and after diagnosis.***
Dr Gerrit-Jan Liefers, study author based at the Leiden University Medical Centre, The Netherlands, said: “Our findings could have profound clinical implications. In this study, we showed the therapeutic effect of a widely-available, familiar drug that costs mere pennies per day.
“It’s possible that some older people may have other health problems which mean that they are not well enough to have chemotherapy. Bowel cancer is more common in older people so these results could be a big advance in treatment of the disease, particularly in this group. But we need further research to confirm this.”
The research team are planning to start a randomised controlled trial across the Netherlands later this year, specifically targeting the over-70s population.
The study also found that taking aspirin only after bowel cancer had been detected had a bigger impact on reducing mortality compared with when aspirin was taken before and after diagnosis.****
Researchers said it may be that those who took aspirin and still got bowel cancer could have had a particularly aggressive form of tumour that did not respond as well to aspirin.
This research just looked at bowel cancer patients – focusing on the impact of aspirin in treatment of cancer rather than the drug’s preventative benefits. Previous studies have shown that taking a daily dose of aspirin for several years can help to lower the risk of a number of cancers including bowel and oesophageal cancers.
Cancer Research UK is already investigating the anti-cancer properties of aspirin. These findings show that this is a promising area of research.
Sarah Lyness, executive director policy and information at Cancer Research UK, said: “This latest study adds to the growing evidence about the benefits of aspirin. The latest evidence suggests that the drug not only reduces the risk of dying from cancer, but can also help prevent the disease from developing in the first place.
“But we are not yet at the point where we would recommend people start taking aspirin to reduce their chances of developing cancer.
“There are still questions we need to answer about the side effects, such as internal bleeding, who might benefit most from taking aspirin, who might be harmed, what dose and how long people some people might want to take it for.
“Anyone thinking of taking aspirin to cut their risk of cancer should talk to their GP first. People with cancer should be aware that aspirin can increase the chances of complications before surgery or other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and should discuss this with their specialist.
“In the meantime, there are many ways we can take to lower our risk of developing cancer – not smoking, cutting back on alcohol and keeping a healthy weight can help stack the odds in our favour.”
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*Bastiaannet, E et al., Use of aspirin postdiagnosis improves survival for colon cancer patients British Journal of Cancer (2012)
**Compared with bowel cancer patients who did not take aspirin at all or took it infrequently post-diagnosis. Infrequent use was defined as taking the drug for less than nine months.
***Out of the 4,481 bowel cancer patients analysed – 1176 (26 per cent) did not take aspirin/NSAIDs at all, 2086 (47 per cent) took aspirin/NSAIDs both pre- and post-diagnosis and 1219 (27 per cent) took aspirin/NSAIDs just post-diagnosis.
****Bowel cancer patients who took aspirin pre and post-diagnosis were 12 per cent less likely to die of the disease compared with patients who did not take aspirin at all, or who took aspirin only before or only after their diagnosis.