Aspirin, inflammation and cancer

Aspirin, inflammation and cancer

An overwhelming body of research evidence shows that a small 78-81 mg aspirin can both reduce cancer risk and increase cancer survival by reducing inflammation in the body and on the cancer cell, thus reducing metastases, while improving the ability of the immune system to see the cancer. Aspirin should always be taken with food and should not be taken daily at larger amounts, for fear of stomach issues including ulcers and bleeds.


Aspirin has significant anti-cancer benefits 


Evidence mounts that aspirin can both help prevent and fight cancer. A small daily aspirin (75 – 81 mg) has the following benefits in research: 


1. Aspirin reduces the risk of colorectal, oesophageal, gastric, prostate, breast cancer and lung cancer to varying degrees. 

2. There is clear research that a small daily aspirin can also reduce metastases and increase survival times. 

3. Aspirin can reduce inflammation throughout the body; AND reduce inflammation around the cancer cell itself. Not only does this play a part in reducing metastases, it helps the immune system ’see’ the cancer cell.

4. Aspirin can reduce cancer mortality.


This review looks at the Nobel Prize-winning science that first showed aspirin’s benefits in this area, before going on to review various research studies on the significant benefits of a small aspirin in the fight against cancer. At CANCERactive we believe everyone (except those with cardiovascular problems) should consider making a small aspirin part of their ant-cancer programme.

Certainly, one of the current experts in the field,  Professor Kelvin Tsoi of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has conducted some of the largest studies on this cheap drug. 

He has shown in research on aspirin that people taking aspirin for a long period (at least 6 months, with a mean of 7.7 years) had a significant reduction in cancer risk:
  • 47% less risk of liver cancer

  • 47% less risk of oesophageal cancer

  • 38% less risk of gastric cancer (stomach cancer)

  • 34% less risk of pancreatic cancer

  • 24% less risk of colorectal cancer  

However, he has also shown that while aspirin can reduce colorectal cancer deaths by 35 per cent, it increases bleeding-related mortality by 24 per cent. Levels of 81 mg are the maximum and this should always be taken with food.


Aspirin and cancer-stimulating inflammation


Aspirin is an NSAID - a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. They work to reduce the amount of prostaglandin your body makes. Prostaglandins contribute to your body's inflammation.


All chronic illness has chronic inflammation as a precursor. But with cancer, chronic inflammation is the driving force - it is also how cancer spreads. More inflammation means more metastases.  


In 1982 John Vane, who had worked at the Welcome Institute following doctoral studies at Oxford University, won a Nobel Prize for work on eicosanoids, and particularly prostaglandins (along with Bengt and Samuelson). A blue-skies believer, he championed the use of bio-assays to quickly follow what exactly was happening biochemically in real life in tissue. 

Go to: 15 ways to reduce chronic illness by reducing chronic inflammation


Since his work on prostaglandins, greater detail has shown that they are part of a group of chemicals called Eicosanoids, localised hormones produced by the breakdown of phospholipids in cell membranes throughout the body. There are approximately 130 different eicosanoids in the human body and they may only last 1-5 seconds. They are ‘igniters’ of dangerous cellular biochemical systems. One inflammation pathway identified involves the enzyme Cox-2. Another is Cox-1.

Vane showed that Cox-2 could be ’turned on’ by steroids, insulin and cortisol (the stress hormone). But it could be turned off by a small aspirin. Since his research others have confirmed this, and shown the abilities of other anti-inflammatory compounds such as fish oil and curcumin.


The control and regulation of the eicosanoids seems ultimately determined by the amount of, and balance between, two essential fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. They are the precursors to the arachidonic acid cascade, which produces secondary bile acids and thus the eicosanoids are derived. The cell type also affects the balance between good and bad eicosanoids. Other factors may prompt less ’bad’ eicosanoids (for example, an effective immune system) or more ’bad’ eicosanoids (for example, injury, infection or operations). 

John Vane was knighted for his work and the people he trained went on to make important discoveries concerning inflammation (Flower - autoimmune inflammatory diseases as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma; Sergio Ferreira, Ph.D. - ACE inhibitor drugs for lowering blood pressure; John Hughes, Ph.D. - opioid peptides involved in the body’s regulation of pain; Salvador Moncada, Ph.D. - research into nitric oxide, now considered a “super-molecule” because of the role it plays in the immune and nervous systems, in inflammation and in programmed cell death or apoptosis).


Stress and high insulin levels can stimulate cancer


So, Cox-2 is known to be stimulated by stress hormones, insulin and steroids.


For example, the typical ‘high sugar, refined carbohydrate, big meal’ diet of the Western world will prompt higher blood sugar levels and greater inflammatory insulin levels. Where the brain becomes stressed, biochemical messages cause the adrenal glands to pump out more cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) and these stimulate Cox-2.


In Nature (Jan 13th,2011), Yale researchers led by Professor Tian Xu have shown that inflammation causes the ignition of two cancer causing genes and that cancer-causing mutations can promote tumour development even when they are located in different cells in the same tissue.  “We have long suspected stress could cause cancer. Now we have proven it”.


Stress management increases survival times


UCLA have shown that as cancers progress, so levels of ‘the stress hormones’ actually increase in the body (whether or not you actually feel more stressed). They have shown that Stress Management actually increases survival times and produced two rather large reports on the subject. The first showed the benefits of ‘Counselling’; the second the benefits of four anti-stress factors – a Rainbow Diet, fish oils, yoga (which, like exercise, releases powerful anti-cortisol endorphins), and meditation (which releases powerful healing opiods).

Go To: Stress, mental state, emotions and cancer


Leeds University in clinical trials showed that a triple-dose fish oil could reduce pre-cancerous polyps in the gut and prevent the recurrence of colorectal cancer through restriction of the Cox-2 pathway. MD Anderson research has shown that curcumin can also reduce the Cox-2 inflammation pathway.

Various studies have shown that certain foods can stimulate the production of epinephrine (coffee, tea, citrus fruits, bananas, chocolate, cocoa, vanilla), while other foods reduce it (‘greens’, raw vegetables).


However, the bulk of the work on inflammation reduction concerns Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and particularly aspirin.


Several studies have recently appeared concerning the benefits of common aspirin in the fight against cancer. It appears to be a preventative aid, whilst increasing survival and restricting metastases.


Aspirin and Cancer


1. In 2004, according to the American Medical Association, women who take more than seven aspirin pills per week reduced their breast cancer risk by 29 per cent. The study involved 2862 women from Long Island, New York and also detected some reduction in older women who took other ’pain drugs’. The study concluded that aspirin was lowering oestrogen levels, however the NCI said far more work was needed on that conclusion.


2. Researchers Dr. Zigang Dong and Associate Director Dr. Ann M. Bode of the Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, showed that Cox-2 drives the formation of tumors, at least in part, through the up-regulation of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). EGFR is overexpressed in about 80 percent of cases involving colorectal cancer. They concluded that taking aspirin reduces a person’s risk of colorectal cancer, by calming COX-2. The Hormel Institute was partnered with Mayo Clinic.


The report noted that  ‘consistent clinical trial data strongly suggests that regular use of aspirin and other non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs lowers a person’s lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer’. (EBioMedicine).


3. However, there is some inconsistency. And Andrew Chan of Harvard Medical School believes this may be down to the genetic subsection of the population to which you belong. (J. Nat Cancer Inst.2006; 98; 1494-1500). 


4. Some pre-cancerous inflammation can be caused initially by infection. Studies on Oesophageal cancer, which also looked at Barratt’s oesophagus linked the cause of inflammation and acid reflux to excessive levels of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach and the stimulation of localized irritation and acid. A meta-analysis of nine studies showed aspirin significantly reduced the cancer risk. (Wang; Journal of National Cancer Institue Vol 95, 2003).


5. In August 2014, a team from Trinity College, Dublin showed that women with Grades I-III breast cancer were less likely to have spread to the lymph nodes if they had been taking aspirin prior to the diagnosis.


6. Dr. Gretchen Gierach of the NCI showed that (across 127,000 women, aged 51-72, tracked for 5 years) daily aspirin usage cut the incidence of ER+ breast cancer by 16 per cent.  A second study showed that overweight women who had survived oestrogen-positive breast cancer were only half as likely to have a recurrence if they were taking daily aspirin long-term. And where it did recur it took longer to do so. Short-term usage repeatedly, in studies, seems to be of little benefit in ER+ cancer.


Aspirin prevents cancer, reduces metastases and increases survival

In 2012 Oxford University and John Radcliffe Hospital scientists led by Professor Peter Rothwell found ’strong evidence’ across three major studies that aspirin could not only help prevent the development of cancer but could reduce the chances of cancer spreading and reduce deaths from cancer.
The Oxford researchers said the evidence was ’so strong’ they urged NICE to take immediate action telling Doctors to prescribe aspirin to cancer patients. Some of the studies involved over 200,000 people and there was particular emphasis on throat and lung cancer although the research involved all cancers.
Prevention - One study showed that taking a daily small aspirin tablet for three years reduced the chances of developing cancer in men by 23 per cent, and in women by 25 per cent.
Reducing Metastases - Another study showed that once cancer had been diagnosed the chances of it spreading were cut in more than half (55%) if aspirin was taken daily for six and a half years.
Reducing Death - A third study showed that aspirin cut the risk of dying from cancer by more than a third (37%) if taken daily for five years.


In a further Queen Mary, London University meta-study, researchers led by Professor Jack Cuzick, Head of QMUL’s Centre for Cancer Prevention, found taking aspirin for 10 years could cut bowel cancer cases by around 35% and deaths by 40%. Rates of oesophageal and stomach cancers were cut by 30% and deaths by 35-50%.


As with the Oxford research, which talked about 6 years continued use, QMUL evidence showed people should take a daily dose for at least five years and probably 10. They concluded that no benefit occurred in the first three years.


Professor Jack Cuzick said “Whilst there are some serious side effects that can’t be ignored, taking aspirin daily looks to be the most important thing we can do to reduce cancer after stopping smoking and reducing obesity, and will probably be much easier to implement."


Both the Oxford and the QMUL research suggested aspirin might stop the action of blood platelets, which cause the blood to clot. Apart from their role in strokes and heart attacks, platelets are also involved in the cancer process where they react with tumour cells and the researchers concluded this could have an effect in reducing in metastases and tumour formation.


Cuzick was unequivocal: "Our study shows that if everyone aged between 50-65 started taking aspirin daily for at least 10 years, there would be a 9% reduction in the number of cancers, strokes and heart attacks overall in men and around 7% in women. The total number of deaths from any cause would also be lower, by about 4% over a 20-year period. The benefits of aspirin use would be most visible in the reduction in deaths due to cancer”.


In a 2016 meta-analysis by the University of Cardiff School of Medicine, the conclusions were much the same.  They report that patients receiving cancer treatment could increase their chances of survival by up to 20 per cent if they took a low-dose aspirin. The average follow up was 5-years and conclusions also included that aspirin would reduce the incidence of cancer spread.


Professor Peter Elwood who led the research, reported in the journal PLOS ONE) looked at all of the available data including five randomised trials and forty two observational studies of colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.


Elwood concluded,“Our review, based on the available evidence, suggests that low-dose aspirin taken by patients with bowel, breast or prostate cancer, in addition to other treatments, is associated with a reduction in deaths of about 15-20%, together with a reduction in the spread of the cancer. The results from six studies of other cancers also suggest a reduction, but the numbers of patients were too few to enable confident interpretation. A mutation – known as PIK3CA – was present in about 20% of patients, and appeared to explain much of the reduction in colon cancer mortality by aspirin”.

Duke’s Center for Genome research has now shown how aspirin can work against Cox-1 and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.


Aspirin can act as an immunotherapy


You will read reports on the new breed of immunotherapies and how they remove the blockages or brakes on the immune system. In cancer, the immune system has a hard time ‘seeing and recognising’ a cancer cell. One reason is that the outer layer of the cell is inflamed and this presents a shield to the immune system.


Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute have shown that cancer cells from breast, skin and bowel cancer produce large amounts of Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) to form this shield. Professor Caetano Reis e Sousa, senior group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said: "We’ve added to the growing evidence that some cancers produce PGE2 as a way of escaping the immune system. If you can take away cancer cells’ ability to make PGE2 you effectively lift this protective barrier and unleash the full power of the immune system. Giving patients COX inhibitors like aspirin at the same time as immunotherapy could potentially make a huge difference to the benefit they get from treatment.


Aspirin, ulcers and bleeding


Readers should note: You should not take aspirin on an empty stomach. Long-term usage can cause ulcers and/or bleeding in the digestive tract – 60 year olds who have taken aspirin for ten years increase their risk of such bleeding from 2.2 to 3.6 per cent. Bleeding can be life threatening in a small number of cases.


However, in the Cardiff University study on low-dose aspirin researchers noted “One of the concerns about taking aspirin remains the potential for intestinal bleeding. That’s why we specifically looked at the available evidence of bleeding and we wrote to all authors asking for further data. In no study was serious or life-threatening bleeding reported.”


The Mayo clinic, Oxford University and others, all of which were consistent in their conclusions that a low-dose aspirin of 75 mg to 81 mg was optimum. This is just a quarter of a standard 300 mg tablet.


Surprisingly then, in the current 12-year randomised trial of aspirin and cancer by Cancer Research UK, doses of either 100 or 300 mg are being used. Extreme care should be taken at this dosage, the aspirin always being taken with food.




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