New research shows that aspirin truly deserves its nickname as the wonder drug, since it now has been shown to help fight cancer.
It’s naturally found in willow bark, which has been used as herbal medicine for thousands of years. People have been taking aspirin in its current form for more than 100 years.
Ancient Greeks used ground willow bark to treat fevers and control pain during childbirth. Then, in the early 1800s, English physicians and scientists wanting to discover the key to willow bark’s effect isolated its active component, salicin. In 1890, a German chemist named Friedrich Bayer (sound familiar?) created a synthetic salicin molecule called acetylsalicylic acid. This derivative was less irritating to the stomach than willow bark and became the modern form that lines drugstore shelves.
Since then, researchers have found even more medical uses for aspirin. In the 1960s, scientists began exploring aspirin’s ability to thin blood and tested its usefulness in preventing heart disease. To summarize many extensive clinical trials, it is now generally believed that taking low-dose aspirin on a daily basis helps reduce the chances of a second heart attack — but not the first — in men. But these studies also revealed some negative side effects of regular aspirin use, including bleeding ulcers and hemorrhaging retinas.
Recent studies may have uncovered another, quite wonderful, effect of aspirin — reducing the risk of some common cancers. Initial studies found the occurrence of colorectal cancer was lower in those who took aspirin regularly. These studies followed individuals who took aspirin for its cardiovascular benefits, but also ended up decreasing their risk of developing certain tumors by almost 40 percent. And low-dose aspirin also appeared to reduce the spread of tumors in people with established cancer.
In a 2010 British study, those taking daily aspirin for at least five years reduced their risk of dying from colorectal, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, brain, lung and prostate cancers by more than 20 percent. These studies also cited issues of bleeding in the stomach and retinas, especially in older individuals. New guidelines for aspirin therapy suggest starting an aspirin regime at age 50 and stopping by age 70 in order to reduce this risk.
Several properties of aspirin might explain its cancer-fighting abilities. Aspirin inhibits enzymes called cyclooxygenases or COX, which normally convert a type of fatty acid into compounds that protect the stomach lining. This may be why aspirin can lead to stomach irritation, but may also explain why aspirin works well as an anti-inflammatory, since COX can contribute to inflammation. And preventing inflammation also prevents the growth of tumor cells.
Given its ability to combat the nation’s two most serious killers, the potential for expanding low-dose aspirin therapy looks positive. Overall, these results have scientists on the verge of declaring aspirin the first “general anticancer drug.” Of course, you should consult your physician before starting any drug regime.