October 3, 2019
Cancer can seem like a death sentence, despite the fact that treatments have never been more successful, and will continue to improve.
So it’s no surprise that people fret about how to reduce their risk. Once you have it, it’s a lot harder to get rid of than if you never got it.
- Quit smoking? Check.
- Eat healthier? Check.
- Less exposure to pollution? Check.
- Reduce stress? Call your boss.
But sometimes, it’s actually the less obvious things that can really help lower your cancer risk.
I get it, it can be a bit of a minefield of quackery. It’s difficult to know who to trust when the media touts some everyday food as the next big cancer cure.
In fact, I noticed a certain newspaper, which I won’t name, labeled coffee as a cancer cause and cure within the space of a year!
As a doctor, you can take it from me that there’s one household drug which can absolutely reduce your risk of GI cancer…
And it’s aspirin! But how does it all work?
GI cancer complications
First, let’s clear up what I mean when I say GI cancer. GI is short for gastrointestinal, which is your digestive system.
GI cancers include:
- stomach (or gastric)
- small intestine cancers, among others
The big bad is colorectal, or bowel/colon cancer. It’s the second leading cause of cancer-related death, just behind lung cancer.
Bear in mind, the GI tract is a pretty sensitive area. All the nutrients we get from our food go through it, and our immune system is closely linked to it. Much like how smokers push up lung cancer rates, our modern diet wreaks havoc with our GI tract.
So gastrointestinal cancer is a serious issue, but where does our buddy aspirin come into the picture?
Aspirin fights inflammation
You might have heard about the idea that if you take an aspirin a day, it’ll reduce your chance of a heart attack, and increase your likelihood of survival.
And that’s true, for similar reasons that it also works for strokes: it thins your blood, meaning there’s a lower likelihood of blood clots that cause blockages.
It does this by reducing the clumping action of platelets, the blood cells which form up together to block other blood cells from escaping a wound.
But that’s not all. In fact, aspirin was the first NSAID to be discovered. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) fight fever, pain, and inflammation without making you high.
The point about inflammation is key. More and more, the medical community is starting to see the role inflammation plays in the big diseases of our time like heart disease and cancer.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that aspirin seems to protect against cancer, in particular, gastrointestinal cancer, when you take it for 10+ years.
In fact, it’s generated such attention that there are now twenty-nine studies on aspirin and gastrointestinal cancer.
Remember what I said about diet earlier? So much of the food we eat nowadays is highly inflammatory and processed. Add onto that the proximity of the immune system to your GI tract, and conditions that cancers love.
It’s no wonder gastrointestinal cancer is so prolific when our guts are so aching, raw and red!
But the results for the efficacy of aspirin speak for themselves. According to a 2009 study involving more than 600,000 patients, long-term use of aspirin showed a 24-47 percent significant reduction on major GI cancers.
And the reduction in inflammation spread to other cancers too. The aspirin takers were 47 percent less likely to have cancers of the liver and esophagus, 38 percent less likely for the stomach, and 34 percent for the pancreas.
Should I start taking aspirin?
So if aspirin is such a good way to stave off cancer, should we all take it?
Well, not exactly.
Aspirin, just like any drug, changes how your body operates compared to how it did before. That can have some consequences. Remember, aspirin is a blood thinner!
For example, if you’re about to have surgery, very thin blood is a bad idea. If you’re not in the high-risk cancer age bracket (below 50), or you’re above 70 years old, the costs outweigh the benefits.
Moreover, if you have digestive trouble, a daily aspirin may not be a good idea as it can sometimes irritate the stomach or even cause GI bleeding. This is because it inhibits the substances which create your stomach lining. Yikes!
Think of it like ibuprofen, which is another NSAID. You should take it when you feel pain, but if you took it every day for 10 years for no good reason, that would be a problem.
But, if you’re in the right age bracket, aspirin is definitely a good idea. The US Preventative Services Task Force recommends low-dose aspirin use for adults age 50 to 59 years old for at least 10 years if they are at high risk.
And this is because if you’re that age, heart attacks and cancer are a far bigger concern than when you’re young. This alone makes it worth it.
Prevention is better than a cure, or so they say. When it comes to cancer, the lack of a concrete and reliable cure makes it vital you protect yourself.
The evidence is clear: if you take a daily, low-dose aspirin for a number of years, it will reduce your cancer likelihood. Just don’t make the mistake of doing it from a relatively early age. Always consult your doctor as to whether you’re a suitable candidate.