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Published on September 25, 2015

Aspirin can reduce the risk of colorectal cancerAspirin can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer

Aspirin has long been known to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Now, a new study finds it also can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer in the United States and the second deadliest.

A team from the Department of Clinical Epidemiology at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark found that people taking 75 to 150 mg. of aspirin continuously for five years or longer saw an associated 27 percent reduced risk for colorectal cancer.

The researchers also found that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin, Aleve and Celebrex is even more effective, reducing colorectal cancer risk by as much as 45 percent.

About 40 percent of Americans aged 50 and older have benign tumors in the colon, and an estimated 2 percent will progress to cancer. “As this form of cancer is especially slow to develop, it is open to successful preventive actions such as taking low-dose aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” the researchers report.

“This study really follows up on previous research that using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs decreases the production rate of polyps. And reducing polyps can lead to a decrease in cancer,” explained Peter S. Hopewood, MD, FACS, a surgeon and cancer specialist at Falmouth Hospital.

Colorectal cancer occurs in the large intestine or rectum, starting mostly as polyps, which are abnormal raised or flat tissue growths. Some very large polyps called advanced adenomas are more likely than smaller ones to progress to cancer.

Dr. Hopewood recommends taking a daily low-dose baby aspirin, especially for those who have a history of polyps. People with other risk factors including a family history of the disease, colitis or Crohn’s Disease also should consider taking aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammation drugs after consulting with their primary care physician.

“If a parent, child or sibling has had colon cancer, you are at the top of the list for risk,” he emphasized.

The Denmark study group was made up of 10,280 adults with first-time colorectal cancer and 102,800 control participants. While lifestyle factors were not measured by the researchers, Dr. Hopewood recommended these steps to help prevent colorectal cancer:

  • Control your weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Do not smoke
  • Minimize red meats and processed foods such as bologna and salami.
  • Maximize fiber in your diet

“Diet is critical,” Dr. Hopewood explained. “Consider that colon cancer is virtually unheard of in sub-Saharan Africa, where the diet is night and day from ours. They never eat processed foods and rely almost exclusively on high-fiber ingredients.”

Taking low-dose aspirin and controlling lifestyle behaviors also help prevent cardiovascular disease, he said.

Dr. Hopewood also emphasized the importance of screening for colorectal cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that if everyone age 50 or older had regular screening tests as recommended, at least 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be avoided.

Screening begins with scheduled colonoscopies. “This procedure will detect polyps, and they will be removed before they can grow into cancer,” he said. “Those with polyps should have colonoscopies every five years and possibly every three years.”

Other screens such as fecal blood tests or DNA testing can serve as early detection strategies, but they cannot prevent colorectal cancer the way a colonoscopy can, Dr. Hopewood explained.

Those who suffer chronic cramps, detect blood in their stool or experience unexplained weight loss should be screened immediately, he said. In addition, people with hemorrhoids should not attribute bleeding to them without further screening.

The American Cancer Society has set a goal of increasing colorectal cancer screening rates nationwide to 80 percent by 2018. If accomplished, the society estimates 43,000 new cases of colon cancer will be prevented along with 21,000 deaths annually by 2030.

The death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping for the last two decades largely because of increased screening, yet fewer than six in 10 American adults between 50 and 75 were up-to-date on screening as recently as two years ago, according to the American Cancer Society.