Older women who regularly took aspirin, but not similar anti-inflammatory drugs, had a lower-than-average risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, according to an American study.
Melanoma cases have been on the rise in recent decades. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 77,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2013 and just over 9,000 people will die of the disease.
The findings, published in the journal Cancer, are based on 12 years of data from the large, long-term Women’s Health Initiative study and account for how much time study participants spent in the sun and whether they typically used sunscreen.
But lead author Jean Tang, from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, said that this does not mean all women should start taking aspirin to ward off skin cancer.
“This study ... correlates use of aspirin with lower melanoma risk but doesn’t prove it,” Tang said.
For their study, Tang and her colleagues tracked almost 60,000 white women, ages 50 to 79, who reported their medication use and any new diagnoses on annual questionnaires.
During the research period, 548 women — less than one per cent — were diagnosed with melanoma.
Women who said they were regularly taking aspirin, meaning at least twice a week, at the start of the study were 21 per cent less likely to develop melanoma than those not on anti-inflammatory medicines. Use of aspirin for five years or longer was tied to a 30 per cent reduction in skin cancer risk.
However, women who took other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) - such as ibuprofen and naproxen — weren’t any less likely to develop melanoma. Neither were users of acetaminophen.
Aspirin and other NSAIDS inhibit certain proteins that are known to play a role in tumour growth, so it’s not clear why aspirin alone might lower the risk of melanoma.
According to Tang, it’s possible there just weren’t enough women taking non-aspirin NSAIDS in the study to see a clear effect.
But Randall Harris, a cancer researcher from The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, said the evidence has been piling up that aspirin and other NSAIDS are tied to a lower risk of a range of cancers, including breast, colon and lung cancer.
“In my opinion, it’s certainly worth considering taking one of these compounds on a regular basis at a relatively low dose ... two or three times per week, especially if you are at risk for developing any one of these malignancies,” he said.
But Tang doesn’t think the evidence, as of now, supports most people using these drugs to ward off cancer, including melanoma.
“For women who are at high risk (such as) somebody who’s already had skin cancer, talk to your doctor about taking aspirin, because aspirin is still a drug,” she said. “The benefit needs to be weighed against some of the possible side effects.”