Health recommendations from study on aspirin and lung cancer are premature

June 27, 2002

An epidemiological study published earlier this week in the British Journal of Cancer by NYU School of Medicine researchers shows an association between regular use of aspirin and reduced risk of a common type of lung cancer in women. But the NYU researchers emphasized today that until large clinical trials establish aspirin's beneficial effect, women shouldn't start taking the painkiller to prevent cancer.

"The results of our study suggest that aspirin may have even wider benefits than previously thought," says Arslan Akhmedkhanov, M.D., Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU School of Medicine, one of the study's authors. "However, we consider our results preliminary. Larger studies are needed to confirm our study's results before any recommendations about aspirin use for the prevention of lung cancer can be made," he says.

The new study found that taking aspirin three or more times each week for at least six months appears to substantially lower a woman's risk of developing non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer. The study involved 81 women with lung cancer who were compared to 808 healthy women of the same age and menopausal status. The women responded to questions about their use of painkillers as part of an ongoing, long-term study called the NYU Women's Health Study (WHS). The WHS began in the late 1980s and was originally designed to evaluate the effects of hormones and diet on breast cancer and was later expanded to other cancers.

From 1994 to 1996, the researchers collected information on aspirin use for women enrolled in the WHS. Follow-up information on aspirin use was obtained from questionnaires distributed between 1994 and 1996.

It isn't known how aspirin could act to lower cancer risk. By reducing local inflammation, aspirin may be preventing the release of certain molecules that stimulate mutations in epithelial cells leading to out-of-control cellular growth, says Dr. Akhmedkhanov. There is some evidence from animal studies that chronic inflammation could be related to the development of cancers arising in the epithelium, the cellular lining, of organs.

Women should not begin taking aspirin to prevent lung cancer, cautions Dr. Akhmedkhanov. Aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and raise the risk of other bleeding disorders, especially in those with a family history of bleeding disorders. The exact dose of aspirin that should be taken also needs to be determined. Any woman who decides to take aspirin routinely should first consult her primary care physician, he advises.

"Aspirin definitely has side effects," says Dr. Akhmedkhanov. "By far, the best way to avoid lung cancer is to not smoke," he says.

NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicine

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