Many studies have suggested that women taking aspirin may have lower breast cancer risk. But how does this specific anti-inflammatory affect the health outcomes of women who have been treated for the disease already?
Aspirin is a popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) in the medicine cabinets of many people.
People typically use aspirin to treat headaches, as well as mild symptoms of cold and flu. Nevertheless, research has shown that this NSAID can also have other beneficial effects, such as preventing the development of blood clots, thus reducing the risk of stroke.
Studies previously covered by Medical News Today have indicated that aspirin may help reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 20%, and may even help treat cancers already diagnosed, including breast cancer.
But newer research at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health from the University of North Carolina (UNC) highlights that evidence is mixed about how aspirin can influence breast cancer outcomes.
The UNC investigators note in their study paper published in the journal Cancer that “the underlying biological mechanisms and epidemiological findings on aspirin use in relation to prognosis and mortality after breast cancer are limited and inconsistent.”
Although aspirin may help to maintain the health of some individuals who have breast cancer, other individuals may have associations with less favorable outcomes. So which people are likely to help with this NSAID, and why? To investigate this, the UNC team set out to do.
“Chronic inflammation is a key player in multiple types of cancer, including breast cancer,” states the first author of the recent study, Tengteng Wang, Ph.D.
“Aspirin is a major nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug which has anti-inflammatory properties,” she adds. “Given this,” Wang explains, “substantial evidence from laboratory and population studies suggests that taking aspirin may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.”
But as the situation is not as clear about the connection between pre-diagnosis use of aspirin and results after treatment for breast cancer, Wang and colleagues decided to take a closer look at the one place likely to hold the answers human DNA.
Specifically, the scientists examined whether using aspirin before breast cancer diagnosis could interfere with DNA methylation in 13 genes linked to mechanisms for breast cancer, influencing the outcome of cancer treatment.
DNA methylation is the process of switching on and off DNA molecules through chemical reactions depending on external factors. This can alter gene activity, leading to a number of health problems, including cancer.
APC, BRCA1, CDH1, CYCLIND2, DAPK1, ESR1, GSTP1, HIN, CDKN2A, PR, RAR-beta, RASSF1A, and TWIST1 are the 13 genes the researchers focused on in this study.
Wang and her team analyzed data from 1,266 female breast cancer participants who had enrolled in the Breast Cancer Study on Long Island.
Researchers found that women who had taken aspirin for 6 weeks at least once a week before being diagnosed with breast cancer and showed methylation in BRCA1 a gene that promotes tumors of breast cancer, reported a 67 percent increase in all-cause mortality following treatment.
At the same time, women who had unmethylated BRCA1 and PR genes and had taken aspirin before their diagnosis reported a 22–40 percent reduction in cancer-related mortality.
Such findings indicate, according to the researchers, that there is indeed a correlation between the methylation status of specific genes and whether or not the use of aspirin is likely to be associated with more or less favorable outcomes following a diagnosis of breast cancer.
With regard to the current research on the links between use of aspirin and cancer outcomes, the researchers note that there is still a long way to go before we can really understand the complex relationships and underlying mechanisms.
Tengteng Wang, Ph.D. and Prof. Marilie Gammon said : “Future research designed to replicate our findings should include a larger sample size to allow examination of patterns of aspirin use, and an enlarged panel of genes to explore the role of genetic predisposition in driving overall genetic instability on survival after a breast cancer diagnosis.”


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