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Aspirin may cut melanoma risk, study finds
March 11th, 2013
12:01 AM ET

Aspirin may cut melanoma risk, study finds

Aspirin has long been known to provide multiple health benefits: Pain relief, heart attack prevention, and possible prevention of several kinds of cancers.

A new study from Stanford University looks specifically at aspirin's role in reducing the risk of melanoma , a form of skin cancer that is on the rise.

The study found a significant association between frequent usage of the drug and this form of cancer; aspirin users were less likely to get melanoma than those who did not take aspirin.

This is not proof, however, that aspirin is directly responsible for lowering the risk.

History of aspirin: From a tree, a 'miracle'

Why study this?

Researchers believe inflammation plays a big role in cancer development, and aspirin is an anti-inflammatory drug. Previous studies support the idea that in certain kinds of cancers, aspirin may be preventative.

"Aspirin also seems to specifically promote tumor cell death in certain cells, and one [type] are melanoma cells," said the study's senior author Dr. Jean Tang, who is an assistant professor of dermatology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Participants

Researchers examined data from the Women's Health Initiative, a large sample of women ages 50 to 79 who reported information about themselves for an average of 12 years. The new study looked at nearly 60,000 women in this group.

Only Caucasian women were studied because melanoma risk increases in people with less skin pigment, and 95% of cutaneous melanoma cases are found in Caucasians.

Study setup

The study authors divided women into categories depending on whether they said they were taking aspirin, another kind of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or nothing.

A "user" of a drug was someone who took the medication at least twice weekly. Prescription records and bottle labels were checked to verify these drugs.

Women also reported their sun exposure, and researchers controlled for this in their analysis.

Results

During the period of the study, medical review confirmed 548 incident melanomas among participants.

Based on the entire data set, women who took aspirin appeared to have a 21% lower risk of melanoma on average. The longer these women took aspirin, the more protection they had. At one year, they cut their risk by 11%. Between one and four years, it was cut by 22%. At five years and up, risk reduction was 30%.

The results did not appear to be different in one age group vs. another, or whether the women had lighter or darker skin or a history of skin cancer.

Other NSAIDs and acetaminophen were not linked to melanoma risk in this study.

"The results of this study add to the results found by other studies that strongly suggest that aspirin may have anti-cancer properties," Tang said.

Limitations

If aspirin does have this effect, that doesn't mean other NSAIDs don't also work this way. Tang said that the women in the study tended to take aspirin more regularly and frequently than other NSAIDs, so this may have affected the results. Study authors also did not differentiate between women who took painkillers twice a week and those who took them more often.

Other researchers are studying aspirin and other NSAIDs for possible anti-cancer effects, she said.

Information about the women's sun exposure was self-reported, and their activities were not controlled in an experimental setting.

This was also restricted to postmenopausal women; it is unclear what the benefits would be, if any, if women started taking anti-inflammatory drugs earlier in life.

Bottom line?

"The results of this study add to the results found by other studies that strongly suggest that aspirin may have anti-cancer properties," Tang said.

But the research is not at the point of recommending that everyone take aspirin every day. Stronger evidence would come from a long, expensive clinical trial to examine aspirin against a placebo for cancer risk prevention, which is hard to come by in the current stringent government funding environment, she said.

More: Who should take a daily aspirin?


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