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Originally published Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 5:45 PM

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New study supports aspirin's role in helping prevent cancer cases

Aspirin, the 3-cent painkiller whose origins can be traced to Hippocrates, reduces the chances of developing or dying from cancer earlier than previously thought and also prevents tumors from spreading, studies show.

Bloomberg News

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Aspirin, the 3-cent painkiller whose origins can be traced to Hippocrates, reduces the chances of developing or dying from cancer earlier than previously thought and also prevents tumors from spreading, studies show.

People who took a daily dose of aspirin had a 24 percent lower rate of developing cancer after three years and were 37 percent less likely to die from the disease after five years than those who didn't, according to a study in The Lancet medical journal Wednesday. The rate was similar for men and women.

Doctors have known since 2007 that aspirin can reduce the long-term risk of dying from cancer, though those benefits are seen only after at least eight years. The new studies show the drug also has short-term advantages, suggesting it could be used to treat some tumors, said Peter Rothwell, a professor at the University of Oxford who led the research.

"Aspirin differs from virtually all other drugs in that situation, both in the sense that it's considerably cheaper, but also it's probably a lot safer," Rothwell said.

The researchers also found that the risk of internal bleeding, a potential side-effect of aspirin, wanes over three or four years, Rothwell said. After that, the risk of dying from bleeding was lower among those taking aspirin than those who weren't, the study found.

Cancer is the second most common cause of premature death worldwide and 5 million new cases are diagnosed in Europe and the United States each year, Rothwell and colleagues wrote. The risk of the disease starts to increase "steeply" from about age 45, suggesting that might be a good time to start taking aspirin, Rothwell said. The risk of internal bleeding from aspirin increases from about age 65, which would be a good time to stop, he said.

"People with a family history of cancer in middle age, or a family history particularly of colon cancer, or people with vascular-risk factors who are at risk of heart attack or stroke" would be most likely to benefit from taking aspirin, Rothwell said.

"If someone's completely healthy, and has a good diet, doesn't smoke, does regular exercise, has no risk factors for cancer or for heart attacks and stroke, then the benefit will probably be greater than the risk, but the benefit will be relatively small."

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