The most common cancer in the United States is skin cancer. About one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. The much talked about melanoma only represents five percent of all skin care cases, but it accounts for a majority of the deaths that results from skin cancer (Skin Cancer Foundation).
So it’s promising that a recent study found that women who used aspirin had a lower rate of melanoma (New York Times). This is very exciting, but it’s too early and not well researched enough to start telling people to use aspirin.
The Study: Melanoma and Aspirin
The study looked at 59,806 post-menopausal women between the ages of 50- and 79-years-old (Cancer). Researchers obtained data about women’s lifestyles, and the women updated their information yearly. They also examined and recorded all the women’s medicine bottles.
Over a 12-year period, researchers looked at the yearly information and the diagnoses of melanoma. They found that women who used acetylsalicylic acid (ASA)-containing nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or aspirin, had on average 21 percent lower risk of melanoma. Researchers broke aspirin users into categories of less than one year of use, one to four years of use, and more than five years of use. Each categorical increase had an 11 percent lower incidence of melanoma, so that those who’d used aspirin for five or more years had a 30 percent lower melanoma risk.
Other NSAIDs that did not contain acetylsalicylic acid or those that were not acetaminophen did not have similar results.
While the researchers controlled for factors like sunscreen use, history of skin cancer, and sunscreen use, one of the potential problems with this study is that it relied on the women to self-report.
Aspirin and Heart Attack and Cancer Prevention
Aspirin is pretty well known as a preventative measure for cardiovascular disease. It’s incorporated into the routines of many Americans over the age of 65 to lessen the risk of cardiovascular disease (Circulation). Though data recent data seems to suggest that how and when to take aspirin for this reason differs between men and women, so talk to your doctor about whether or not your should be taking aspirin.
And that’s not the only thing that aspirin has been shown to help.
Several studies have looked into chemopreventative effects for several kinds of cancer with regular usage of aspirin. Another study where participants self-reported, which left out melanoma, looked at prevention of head and neck cancer and found that aspirin users had a lower incidence of these cancers. They also found the effect was more significant in smokers and drinkers, as well as women (Otolaryngology).
And researchers have been particularly interested in the prevention of colorectal cancer. While some studies show that aspirin is good for prevent colorectal cancer, others suggest that it’s benefits only work for certain subgroups of people (Cancer Prevention Research, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention). Still, there have been contradictory results, which is why aspirin isn’t recommended as prevention for cancer.
One of the suggested mechanisms for this action is aspirin’s effect at promoting cell death and activating tumor suppression genes, but researchers believe there may be other actions we haven’t discovered yet (Journal of the National Cancer Institute).
Should You Start Taking Aspirin?
Short answer: not if you’re doing it to prevent cancer and you’re not high risk. Aspirin is a wonderful medicine and there are people — particularly those at risk for cardiovascular disease — who benefit from its inclusion in their regular routine.
While this study was very promising, and a woman at high risk might discuss the benefits of aspirin as a preventative measure with her doctor, we don’t know the mechanism behind how aspirin works. Though this study had beneficial results, more studies need to be done in order to prove that this isn’t correlation instead of causation, to understand the way aspirin works to prevent melanoma, and to understand who will benefit most from aspirin usage.
For now, keep an eye out for future studies and information, but don’t start popping aspirin. Aside from that, the best thing you can do in preventing melanoma is to wear sunscreen (and apply it often), and to keep vigilant: check your skin monthly for signs of skin cancer (not just melanoma) and ask your doctor to do a check once a year.
This recent study is an exciting one in terms of melanoma and health. We might very well find that regularly taking aspirin has a chemopreventative effect on melanoma (and possibly other cancers as well). But these are early results and there is more research to be done that shows consistent results before we know that this is something that works. In addition to that, we need to understand potential problems, the subgroups that this would benefit the most, and a lot of other information before we start prescribing aspirin to prevent melanoma.
Editor and Contributing Writer Natalie K. Bell spent years mining the depths of the Internet, asking doctors absurd questions, and experiencing the unfortunate trial-and-error of adolescence to accumulate beauty and make-up knowledge. Natalie holds a degree in English Writing and Cultural Anthropology. She enjoys cooking and eating exotic food, spoon collecting, both high-brow and trashy literature, unrealistic romantic comedies, bad horror movies, and vintage jewelry.View all Natalie Bell posts.
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