Some Pain Relievers May Cut Risk of Breast Cancer
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By Megan Rauscher

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Regular use of over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen may lower a woman's breast cancer (news - web sites) risk after menopause, new study results suggest.


The large U.S. study found that postmenopausal women who regularly took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, had a lower breast cancer risk than those who were not regular NSAID users.


"There is compelling and converging evidence to indicate that NSAIDs, which are relatively harmless, inexpensive and are used by millions and millions of people, may have protective effects against breast cancer and other forms of cancer," study leader Dr. Randall E. Harris, from Ohio State University in Columbus, told Reuters Health.


NSAIDs are not without side effects, however. The drugs can cause gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers and bleeding.


For the new study, Harris and his colleagues analyzed data from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), an observational study of nearly 81,000 postmenopausal women sponsored by U.S. National Cancer Institute (news - web sites).


They found that women who took two or more NSAID tablets (aspirin, ibuprofen or related compounds) per week, for five to nine years, cut their risk of breast cancer by 21 percent. Regular use for 10 years or more was associated with a 28 percent cut in risk.


Regular use of ibuprofen, in particular, was associated with even greater protection against breast cancer, with a 49 percent reduction in risk.


This is "striking," Harris said.


Importantly, he added, the apparent protective effect of NSAIDs remained strong in women at higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer, such as those who were overweight or had a family history of the disease.


The benefits were seen with standard doses of NSAIDs -- 325 milligrams of aspirin and 200 milligrams of ibuprofen. But regular use of low-dose or baby aspirin (less than 100 milligrams) was not tied to lower breast cancer risk.


"Interestingly," Harris said, acetaminophen -- the active ingredient in certain pain relievers, such as Tylenol -- was not associated with lower breast cancer risk.


"Acetaminophen is used for pain relief, but it doesn't block the COX-2 gene, which is blocked by aspirin and ibuprofen," he explained. "COX-2 is the trigger for inflammation, and I believe inflammation is a major component of (cancer development)."


Harris cautioned, however, that more studies are needed to "firm up" the optimal dose of NSAIDs that might protect against breast cancer, and to look at the effects of selective COX-2 blockers such as celecoxib (Celebrex) and rofecoxib (Vioxx).


A growing body of research suggests NSAIDs can bring health benefits other than pain relief. Aspirin is regularly prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack, and a number of studies have pointed to a possible role for NSAIDs in preventing certain cancers.


Two recent studies found that regular aspirin use may prevent colon polyps, growths that can progress to cancer.


The WHI study included women between 50 and 79 years of age who did not have a history of cancer when they entered the study.


Participants provided comprehensive health information, including data on breast cancer risk factors and use of aspirin, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs. During an average follow-up of 43 months, 1,392 women developed breast cancer.





Harris was scheduled to present the findings Tuesday during the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Toronto, but the meeting was postponed due to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the city.