Women who take an aspirin a day — which millions do to prevent heart attack and stroke as well as to treat headaches — may raise their risk of getting deadly pancreatic cancer, U.S. researchers said on Monday.
THE SURPRISING finding worried doctors, who say women will now have to talk seriously with their physicians about the risk of taking a daily aspirin.
Pancreatic cancer affects only 31,000 Americans a year, but it kills virtually all its victims within three years.
The study of 88,000 nurses found that those who took two or more aspirins a week for 20 years or more had a 58 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
“Apart from smoking, this one of the few risk factors that have been identified for pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Eva Schernhammer of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who led the study, told a news conference.
“Initially we expected that aspirin would protect against pancreatic cancer, especially since its preventive role in colorectal cancer has been well documented. However, now it appears that we need to examine the relationship more thoroughly,” Schernhammer added in a statement.
“This finding does not mean that women should no longer use aspirin. There are still important benefits to the drug; we also need other large cohort studies to confirm our finding before we can draw any conclusions.”
Schernhammer and colleagues presented their findings to a meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, of the American Association for Cancer Research.
They studied 88,378 women taking part in a large and wide-ranging study of nurses and their health.
Over 18 years, 161 of the nurses developed pancreatic cancer.
Those who took 14 tablets or more per week had an 86 percent greater risk of pancreatic cancer than non-users. The nurses who took between six and 13 tablets had a 41 percent higher risk, while those who only took one to three aspirins a week had an 11 percent greater risk.
The women who took the most aspirin said they were taking it not to protect against heart disease, but because of headaches or other aches and pains.
Even with the increased risk, heart disease is a much greater threat to a woman’s, or a man’s, health. It is by far the biggest killer in the United States and other developed nations. The American Heart Association says cardiovascular disease killed more than 945,000 Americans in 2000.
Doctors do not clearly understand what causes pancreatic cancer, or what makes it so deadly. Obesity is another risk factor, but Schernhammer said her team’s findings held regardless of a woman’s weight, whether she smoked and whether she had diabetes.
Schernhammer noted that one study showed that regular aspirin use may cause pancreatitis — an inflammation of the pancreas that can sometimes lead to pancreatic cancer.
“There is urgent need to settle the biologic reasons for pancreatic cancer,” she said.
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