What is being said?
There have been a series of reports recently claiming that taking aspirin can play a major role in both preventing ovarian cancer and increasing survival rates in women who already have the disease.
The reports claim that one dose of aspirin leads to a 10% reduction in ovarian cancer risk and that a low dose of aspirin can improve chances of survival by up to 30% in women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
What does the evidence show?
This evidence was collected by a series of studies that looked retrospectively at women’s aspirin use across a number of years. Around 750,000 women were given questionnaires about their use of aspirin historically, and of these women, more than 3,500 went on to get ovarian cancer.
What does this mean?
The possible benefits of aspirin use as a way of preventing and treating cancer have been talked about for many years. Prior to this week’s reports, there have already been a number of studies that have produced promising results.
In 2012 a culmination of five studies showed a possible reduction of cancer spreading either at the point it was diagnosed, or later on. A further analysis of studies in 2014 suggested a potential risk reduction in bowel, oesophageal and stomach cancers.
However, there are still a lot of important questions that need answering before guidelines and recommendations can be made about aspirin as a way of preventing and treating ovarian cancer.
What else do we need to know?
Firstly it needs to be established what the optimum dose of aspirin is to have a protective and/or preventative effect, and how long it needs to be taken for it to have this effect.
It is also important to establish the risks and benefits of taking aspirin as a risk reduction measure. Cancer Research UK predicts that for every 1,000 people who use aspirin for this reason 17 cases of cancer and heart attacks could be prevented. However, there could also be 2 or three people who die from a stroke or ulcer bleed as a result of increased and prolonged aspirin consumption. So there is a possible risk of exposing people who may never have developed any form of cancer in their life to other serious health conditions as a result of taking aspirin for a prolonged period of time.
Along with the risks that could be attributed to the long-term increased use of aspirin it is important to consider that it can cause complications in people who have things such as asthma, haemophilia and stomach ulcers. It can also increase the risk of internal bleeding, which some patients with cancer may already be at risk of due to the treatment they are having.
It is also important to establish at what age it would be most effective to start taking aspirin as a risk-reducing measure. Cancer Research UK suggests that the age bracket that would benefit most from prolonged aspirin use would be 50-70. We know that the majority of ovarian cancer cases are seen in women over the age of 50, so establishing more reliable information about this would be hugely beneficial when thinking about ovarian cancer risk.
For full answers to these questions much more research is required in the form of randomised control studies that take place over a number of years. Prospective monitoring of peoples aspirin intake, (including dosage, the duration it's taken for and the age at which people begin taking it), and then observing trends in cancer diagnosis and survival over a number of years would provide more reliable results, and allow guidelines to be established around how best to use aspirin.
What should I do?
If you are considering using aspirin to help reduce your risk of getting ovarian cancer, or as part of your treatment if you already have the disease we strongly advise that you discuss this with your GP or oncologist first. Despite the promising research, there are still many things that need to be established with certainty before it can be considered a safe and effective option.
Is there anything I can do about ovarian cancer risk?
There are a number of things that we know can affect a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer. These include family history and genetics, age, lifestyle and menstrual history. Read more about these risk factors.
We know that 15-20% of ovarian cancers are due to family history or a genetic mutation. We have created a simple tool that assesses an individual’s risk of having inherited a genetic mutation that could increase their risk of developing certain cancers. It's suitable for both men and women and can be accessed here.