People have taken aspirin for pain for longer than many people realize. Willow bark, whether chewed or taken as a tea, has been used for over two thousand years. Acetylsalicylic acid is the active ingredient in both willow bark and aspirin. It is a common painkiller.
Not only is it good against pain, it is also an anti-inflammatory. Lower doses have also been discovered to reduce the risk of death from heart attack, some strokes, and can even prevent some diseases and cancers.
One of those cancers appears to be breast cancer. Aspirin’s capability to prevent breast cancer has long been controversial. Guessing that there might be a link between aspirin’s potential reduction of breast cancer and diabetes increasing the risk of developing breast cancer in women, researchers in Taiwan looked at some hard data to see if they could find anything.
And find something they did. It appears as though aspirin reduces the risk of developing breast cancer in women with diabetes.
Women with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer over women without diabetes. The causes why are not yet fully understood. However, women with diabetes are 20 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than women without.
Keep in mind that increase is relative risk, not absolute risk. The percentage of a relative risk is applied to the participants of the study who develop the disease, not to every single participant of the study. It is still an increase.
The mechanism which causes women with diabetes to be at such an increased risk of developing breast cancer is not completely understood. Potential culprits are high blood glucose as well as increased inflammation over the whole body.
Inflammation is part of the immune system’s response to threat. It is supposed to help destroy anything that caused an injury, get rid of damaged tissue, and kick start the body’s repair processes. It can sometimes go awry, and when tissue is inflamed for too long, negative consequences can occur.
One such negative consequence is cancer. Prolonged inflammation damages the body’s cells, and this constant damage can lead to the development of malignant tumors and cancers.
Aspirin is an anti-inflammatory, so it helps to control when the body is too inflamed. Some researchers in Taiwan looked at information gathered by the Taiwanese government to see if this medicine could help women with diabetes safeguard against getting breast cancer.
A research team at the Chung Shan Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan performed this study, which they titled Low-Dose Aspirin Reduces Breast Cancer Risk in Women with Diabetes: A Nationwide Retrospective Cohort Study in Taiwan. It was published in the Journal of Women’s Health.
In Taiwan, there is an initiative called the National Health Insurance Research Database. The researchers combed through the database. They used the data pertaining to women with diabetes, and split them into two groups. The experimental group used aspirin daily, while the control group did not.
They analyzed 148,739 women with diabetes. Most were between 50 and 75 years old. Of these women, 27,378 were taking aspirin daily, between 75 to 165 milligrams per day. The span of the data used covered 14 years.
The researchers were Yi-Sun Yang, MD, PhD, Edy Kornelius, MD, Jeng-Yuan Chiou, PhD, Yung-Rung Lai, PhD, Shih-Chang Lo, MD, Chiung-Huei Peng, PhD, and Chien-Ning Huang, MD, PhD.
The women who took aspirin daily were less likely to develop breast cancer. The overall risk reduction in the women who took aspirin daily was 18%, nearly countering the increased risk of breast cancer caused by diabetes in the first place.
However, it was not a simple relationship. Protection seemed to be based on overall cumulative dose. The women who took a total dose of 88,900 milligrams or more over the 14 years saw a reduction in risk of 47 percent. Oddly enough, neither low cumulative doses of under 8,600 milligrams or even medium cumulative doses of 8,600 to 88,900 milligrams saw any positive effects, at least in regards to developing breast cancer.
The researchers surmised that the women had to take aspirin daily for at least 2.5 years or longer for there to be any reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer.
Potential confounding factors included the age of the women studied as well as other illnesses. Even when these were controlled for, the reduction in risk of developing breast cancer remained.
The researchers want to research the matter further, both to confirm the link between aspirin and protection against breast cancer, and how much is necessary and for how long to achieve the beneficial effect.
How Does It Work?
That is a good question! Currently, we are not entirely sure as to how aspirin reduces the risk of breast cancer in women with diabetes.
The most likely theory is that the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin counteract the increased amount of inflammation caused by diabetes. The researchers want to engage in more research to make sure.
If the link is through inflammation, then aspirin may be a more efficacious choice than some other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. This is because aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, reduces inflammation through multiple pathways.
Prostaglandins are hormones used by the body for several purposes, including transmitting pain. They are also used by the body to instigate inflammation, and are suppressed by aspirin. Aspirin also induces the creation of inflammation-reducing NO-radicals.
Aspirin also breaks down into salicylic acid, which itself is an anti-inflammatory. So even broken-down aspirin continues to fight inflammation.
Should I Take Aspirin Daily?
The answer is a resounding “maybe.”
Aspirin is often prescribed to people at risk of heart attack and certain types of stroke. It can also be efficacious against colorectal cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and perhaps even other cancers such as prostate cancer and endometrial cancer.
For all of the potential beneficial effects, aspirin does have its downsides. It is an antiplatelet, which means that it reduces clotting. This can lead to stomach bleeding and some strokes being more dangerous when taking aspirin.
It can also cause stomach ulcers, asthma, and even tinnitus (incessant ringing in your ears). Like anything, the potential upsides must be weighed against the potential downsides. This is best done through having a conversation with your doctor.
Remember, this research showing that aspirin may help prevent breast cancer in women with diabetes is still in its early ages. It is too early to claim aspirin as a miracle cure and preventative against this type of cancer.
However, if you are someone who responds well to aspirin without the side effects, it may be worth considering, especially if it would reduce the risk of other potential diseases such as heart attack.
Again, discuss starting an aspirin regimen or any other medication with your doctor before you commit to doing so.
A new beneficial effect of one of mankind’s most ancient medications is in the process of being discovered. A long controversial hypothesis, that aspirin reduces the chance of breast cancer, has been proven—at least in women with diabetes.
This research shows a link but does not yet have a full explanation. More research is required. In the meantime, if you are a woman with diabetes and are concerned about your chances of developing breast cancer, you may want to discuss starting a low daily dose of aspirin with your doctor.