Could a common painkiller really be able to slow the spread of one of the most virulent forms of breast cancer? A new study says yes, possibly.
Researchers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., and the University of Kansas Medical Center have reportedly found that a frequent low dose of aspirin may slow and even perturb the development of breast cancers and, of particular interest, that it may be effective in stymieing triple-negative breast cancer, one of the most dangerous and hard to treat forms of the disease.
The study, which involved lab tests on mice, showed aspirin could prevent cancer cells from fully forming or being able to even develop the stem cells cancer uses in order to fuel growth and proliferate.
Lab tests showed that the common painkiller was also able to significantly slow the growth of existing tumors, and that aspirin appeared to boost the effect of tamoxifen, a drug used to treat the more common forms of hormone-receptor positive breast cancers. Aspirin’s multi-purpose nature, that it can be used to treat multiple metabolic pathways, means that it may be particularly useful in cancer treatment — this an assertion backed up by many diverse studies that have linked daily doses of aspirin to cancer-preventing lifestyle choices.
However, it is aspirin’s potential impact on triple-negative breast cancer that has intrigued researchers, because the prognosis for triple-negative breast cancer is currently quite poor.
What is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer?
When breast cancer cells test negative on three key markers, estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2 receptors, the cancer is called triple-negative.
This form of cancer, usually diagnosed in women before they reach the 40-50 age bracket, represents about 10-20% of all diagnosed breast cancers. It is more common among African-American or Hispanic women, and a particular gene mutation (BRCA1) also predisposes towards developing the cancer.
Triple-negative breast cancer certainly is beatable, but it presents a particular challenge because it does not respond to the hormone therapies used to treat other less aggressive forms of breast cancer and therefore can often require invasive surgeries such as full mastectomies over lumpectomies.
In addition, triple-negative cancer has shown itself more likely to spread and is more likely to re-occur after treatment during a 3-5 year window (however, it’s recurrence rate drops off below that of hormone responsive breast cancer after that period). Triple negative breast cancer also has a lower five-year survival rate than other forms of breast cancer.
For these reasons, finding a way to effectively tackle triple-negative breast cancer and improve the prognosis for sufferers has been a key area of investigation for the researchers.
The fact that the aspirin therapy showed promise in the lab is immensely encouraging in terms of potential future treatments, but it also presents a little bit of a conundrum for researchers.
Positives and Drawbacks to Aspirin Therapy are Well Documented
Aspirin’s benefits as a painkiller are well documented. Its prowess at potentially staving off cancers has also been a mainstay in research.
Indeed, a study from the University of Oxford, where randomized and controlled trial data from tens of thousands of men and women were analyzed, showed that after three years of daily aspirin use, people were almost 25% less likely to develop cancer than those who did not take aspirin. After five years, the risk of a cancer-related death dropped by 37%.
Another British study found that daily aspirin use over a six and a half year average period coincided with a 36% decrease in metastatic cancer rates, and a 46% drop in cancers such as colon, lung and prostate cancer. Some studies have even found a 75% reduction in esophageal cancer.
There are many other studies that have also shown casual links between a reduced risk of lung disease and heart disease.
However, and in no way meant to scare-monger, aspirin is not without its side effects.
Daily use of the painkiller has been associated with gastrointestinal bleeding and what are known as hemorrhagic strokes, or when a weakened blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into the surrounding brain region. Other studies have also associated daily aspirin use with blindness among the elderly, specifically coinciding with an increased risk of developing “wet” age-related macular degeneration.
These dangers can be effectively managed by careful monitoring and, most scientists agree, are far outweighed by the benefits aspirin can offer, and that is why physicians continue to prescribe aspirin today.
The potential hitch for any future cancer treatments involving aspirin would obviously be how researchers would mitigate such risks. Research has also pointed out that long-term exposure to a daily dose of aspirin might decrease its negative effects so this is by no means an insurmountable issue and, given the wide array of side effects other cancer treatments are known to cause, it is unlikely aspirin’s potential harms will be overly concerning for researchers beyond how to minimize such risks.
What Does The Aspirin Study Mean for Breast Cancer Patients Today?
Right now, nothing.
It can not be emphasized enough that these findings are the very first stage in an investigation into whether the humble aspirin could provide an easy and affordable means to slow one of the most dangerous forms of breast cancer and help in the treatment of breast cancer as a whole. The study is not a green flag to abandon other forms of cancer treatment, nor is it a call to take up a daily aspirin routine without first consulting with a physician.
However, the study does provide yet another thread to follow in the continued battle against cancer. What is especially interesting about aspirin as a cancer inhibitor is how cheap and affordable it is, and how possibly revolutionary to our health an aspirin-based treatment for cancer could be.
Care2 has a range of articles detailing triple negative breast cancer from a survivor’s perspective. You can read about her journey, complete with detailed information on the treatments and procedures she went through in her personal struggle with this disease through the links below.
- #1 The Lump in my Breast: Meeting the Enemy
- #2 Most Breast Lumps are Non-Cancerous: Would Mine Be?
- #3 The Mammogram, the Ultrasound, and ‘The Look‘
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