Pain Relievers Might Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer … But Raise It for Other Problems

Taking the wonder drug we call aspirin and a host of other over-the-counter pain relievers might bring another benefit – a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

An impressively large study in Denmark found that people who took one or two low-dose aspirin long term had a lower risk of colorectal cancer, according to the research published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The data crunched involved more than 113,000 individuals.

In addition to aspirin, the lower-risk association was apparent among people who also took nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which include ibuprofen and naproxen (Advil, Aleve).

According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, but other factors – race, diet, activity and genetic predisposition – also play a role. As a story Reuters noted, earlier studies had suggested that aspirin and NSAIDs might be protective against colorectal cancer, but they didn’t define how much had to be taken, and for how long, to realize the benefit.

If you feel like the tail in a game of crack the whip, you’re not alone. Although taking a baby aspirin (low dose, about 80 mg) to guard against heart problems has been routine for some folks, recent studies have suggested that maybe it’s not such good medicine for some people. Aspirin’s blood-thinning properties also can make people more susceptible to bleeding problems and gastrointestinal distress, including ulcers.

And some people who regularly take NSAIDS might have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a recent FDA warning. In addition, an association has been observed between long-term use of pain relievers including ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) and loss of hearing.

So, it seems, certain over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers present a good-news/not such good news choice, so their use should always be discussed with your doctor.

In the new study, taking low-dose aspirin continuously for at least five years appeared to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 27%; using nonaspirin NSAIDs for at least five years appeared to reduce it by 30%.

Merely having taken aspirin did not alter the colorectal cancer risk – it had to be continuous. But NSAID use seemed to be protective against colorectal cancer even when it wasn’t, although the benefit might be marginal when used intermittently.

Reuters noted that the study did have limitations. Data involved users who got their meds only from doctors’ prescriptions, not OTC purchases, so obviously they were monitored by medical practitioners and not practicing solely self-care. And the researchers couldn’t rule out the possibility that other factors might have increased subjects’ risk for colorectal cancer, such as obesity, dietary habits, alcohol use and family history of colorectal cancer.

The lead researcher, Dr. Soren Friis of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, told Reuters “Self-medication with aspirin or nonaspirin NSAIDs is strongly discouraged, due to the possibility of serious adverse events. The public should not take any medication regularly without consulting with a physician.”

If you want to assess your risk of colorectal cancer, link to the online risk calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, the 10-year risk of developing colorectal cancer for an average U.S. white or black woman in her late 50s is between 1% and 1.4%; her lifetime risk is between 5% and 5.4%. For an average black or white male of that age, the corresponding risks are about 1.4% and 5.8%.

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