SALT LAKE CITY — An aspirin a day cuts the risk of ovarian cancer in women most likely to develop the disease, according to new research. A team from the University of Utah says it could protect those with a family history of the disease and those carrying a specific gene making them more prone to its development.
The painkiller is believed to block cancer-triggering proteins. It also douses inflammation, which plays a key role in ovarian cancer.
“Ovarian cancer is the most fatal gynecologic cancer. Most known risk factors of ovarian cancer—such as family history, mutations in the BRCA 1 and 2 genes, and endometriosis—can’t be modified,” says study author Britton Trabert, PhD, MS, an investigator in the Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute, in a university release.
The team described the findings as “promising.” It is an “actionable step” that vulnerable individuals may take.
“Daily, or almost daily, aspirin use was associated with a 13% reduction in ovarian cancer risk and we found that aspirin benefitted most subgroups. Importantly, this research provides further evidence that ovarian cancer chemoprevention with frequent aspirin use could benefit people in higher-risk subgroups,” Dr. Trabert reports.
Aspirin use can cause harmful side-effects
Four years ago, a Harvard University analysis of more than 200,000 women found a daily 75mg pill slashed case rates by about a quarter. However, individual studies have not been able to look at whether the drug benefits those at varying risk of disease.
“We pooled data from 17 studies, nine prospective cohort studies from the Ovarian Cancer Cohort Consortium, and eight case-control studies from the Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium that included more than 8,300 cases. This gave us a more detailed and accurate look than if we used published data,” the study author continues.
These patients were defined by specific risk factors like family history of breast or ovarian cancer, endometriosis where womb tissue grows around the ovaries, obesity, pregnancy, oral contraceptive use, and sterilization where the fallopian tubes are tied.
“Aspirin use has been linked with major adverse events, including internal bleeding and stroke. We wanted to evaluate whether aspirin could prevent ovarian cancer in people at higher risk,” Dr. Trabert says.
“Since aspirin helped people who had two or more risk factors, we hope patients and clinicians can use this research to have an informed conversation when it comes to potential preventive measures. Individuals should consult their health care providers before beginning new medication in order to most appropriately balance any potential risks with the potential benefits.”
Ovarian cancer is hard to catch early
The new research focuses on identifying strategies for prevention or early detection of ovarian and womb cancers. Dr. Trabert earned a Department of Defense Investigator-Initiated Research Award for work on aspirin use and lower ovarian cancer rates.
Ovarian cancer is known as “the silent killer” among women. There are few distinct symptoms until the disease is more advanced. Nine in 10 women with early-stage disease survive, dropping to just one in 10 if the diagnosis comes too late — one of the highest death rates of all cancers.
Currently, only around a third of women are diagnosed early, with the majority of diagnoses coming at later stages. Aspirin has been used as a painkiller for thousands of years, since the ancient Egyptians found an extract of willow bark helped mothers cope with childbirth.
In recent years, scientists have found the cheap drug has many more applications. It is commonly prescribed by doctors in lower doses to prevent heart problems, because it stops platelets in the blood from clumping together to form clots.
Low-dose aspirin has also been found to significantly reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Experts advise people to consult their doctor before starting to take any drug. Since aspirin is a blood thinner, it comes with a risk of internal bleeding — particularly among people with certain conditions such as an abnormal heart rhythm.
It can also cause stomach bleeds and ulcers that may require hospital treatment, and in rare instances a stroke or a life-threatening hemorrhage.
The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.