The Doctors Are In: The Pill That Battles Cancer & Wins

It was the David-versus-Goliath smackdown of 2010: In a pair of headline-grabbing studies, ordinary low-dose aspirin slashed the risk of dying from nine scary cancers by an average of 30 percent. The humble headache tablet took down cancers of the colon, prostate, brain, lungs, pancreas, esophagus and more.

The news made us YOU Docs smile as we swallowed our daily 162mg of aspirin. Should you be doing the same? We’re betting plenty of people who ought to be taking aspirin aren’t—and that some people who’d be better off not taking it are, despite the risks.

Risks? Yep. Weighing the ins and outs of aspirin therapy is a lot like trying to solve your first Rubik’s cube. It’s already proven to reduce risk for heart attacks and strokes, but regular use can trigger major, even fatal, stomach and intestinal bleeding. So deciding about aspirin requires sorting out your personal risks and benefits. Here’s what you need to know:

First, aspirin can prevent cancer. While there have long been indications of this, the sturdy new data analyzed cancer deaths among 25,570 people who’d been in a string of aspirin studies. Over 20 years, aspirin cut the risk of dying from esophageal cancer by 60 percent, colorectal cancer by 40 percent, lung cancer by 30 percent and prostate cancer by 10 percent. The studies didn’t distinguish between developing cancer and dying from it, but other research shows that regular aspirin use protects against getting breast, colon, esophageal, prostate and ovarian cancer in the first place.

Second, if you develop cancer, aspirin could keep it from killing you. A fistful of studies have found that women with breast cancer who regularly take aspirin are 64 percent less likely to die. Among men with prostate cancer, regular aspirin use cuts death risk by 50 percent. And people with non-small-cell lung cancer who take aspirin live longer after surgery.

So how does aspirin beat the cancer? Basically, it throws the kitchen sink at the disease. First, aspirin blocks COX-2 enzymes, which help many cancers grow. Aspirin also shrinks estrogen production, starving breast cancers that feed on this hormone. In lab studies, aspirin flips a biochemical switch that tells cancer cells to die. It also seems to clean up genetic mutations before they turn cancerous.

So is aspirin right for you? The short answer is yes if you’re a man over 45 (for heart attack prevention) or a woman over 55 (for stroke prevention; it may also protect against heart attacks in women over 65). Consider starting aspirin earlier if you’re at high risk for heart disease or stroke, or have a family history of cancer. We think it’s also a great idea if you have diabetes or you’re a woman taking hormone therapy. Both raise your risk for heart attacks and strokes; hormone therapy can also make you vulnerable to some cancers that aspirin fights.

The answer is no if you’ve already had a scare with gastrointestinal bleeding from taking aspirin, ibuprofen or any other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. It’s also no if you take steroids or regularly take an NSAID for, say, arthritis. It might be no if you’re at super-low risk for a heart attack or stroke. Gotcha thinking? Then take these three steps.

1. Get a second opinion. Talk with your doctor about aspirin. Take the RealAge Test beforehand (—it weighs your personal health risks and benefits, and will help you discuss it.

2. Take aspirin the right way. We recommend 162mg daily. That’s two low-dose tablets, one in the morning, one at night, or half a regular tablet. Drink half a glass of warm water beforehand, the rest afterward. Warm water dissolves the tablet faster, which makes it less likely to trigger serious bleeding. Finally, if you’re taking aspirin for colon cancer protection, don’t follow an every-other-day aspirin regimen. That’s often recommended to reduce heart attack threats while minimizing aspirin’s risks, but it’s a dud for colon cancer.

3. Start now. Cancer protection doesn’t kick in immediately. It takes a while. Some data say five years, but in two randomized colon cancer studies, aspirin-takers had significantly fewer cancers in 90 days. We don’t let a day go by without our aspirin dose. Time to find out if it belongs on your daily list, too.

The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, are authors of YOU: On a Diet. Want more? See The Dr. Oz Show on TV (check local listings). To submit questions, go to (c) 2011 Michael Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet Oz, M.D. Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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