A new study suggests aspirin can actually help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Each year, about 37,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease, the fourth deadliest form of cancer. It kills 75 percent of patients within a year and 95 percent within five years, according to WebMD, a medical information website.
The American Association of Cancer Research describes the findings -- the results of a large case-control study presented at the American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2011 - as "significant."
The study was conducted on 2,128 adults over age 55. The study divided them into two groups: those with pancreatic cancer and healthy matched controls.
"(They were) asked ... to report their use of aspirin, acetaminophen, which is Tylenol and ibuprofen, which is Motrin or Advil. And they found that those people who took at least one baby aspirin a month, had a 26 percent lower risk of developing pancreatic cancer, which is significant, and potentially very exciting."
But why aspirin?
"This study just looked at an association," Ashton said. "So it did not provide cause-and-effect or the mechanism. But there is a theory that the way that aspirin and drugs like Motrin or Advil work to reduce other types of cancer risk is by cutting the risk of inflammation. Now, interestingly in this study, they also found a slight reduction in risk amongst those healthy people who took ibuprofen, but it just wasn't statistically significant. So again, the thinking is that it cuts down on inflammation."
So should people start taking aspirin as a precaution?Ashton said people need to understand the risks -- just like with any other drug.
"Some doctors say that, if aspirin went up for (Food and Drug Administration) approval as an over-the-counter medication today, it may not get approved so readily," she said.
Ashton warned aspirin can increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, as well as stomach irritation, and can worsen asthma. Aspirin, most importantly, she said, can interact with other drugs, and especially blood thinners.
"It definitely has risks, and people should talk to their doctor about whether those are worth it," Ashton said.
Aside from studies with aspirin and other painkillers, Ashton said pancreatic cancer research does have some additional potential developments on the horizon. She said researchers are looking into doing screenings with biomarkers - your DNA's fingerprint - that may be circulating in the blood. Treatment with individualized vaccines is also being studied.