- Research suggests that taking a daily low dose of aspirin might help lower the risk of developing colorectal cancer in some adults.
- Men over 50 have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than women of the same age.
- The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends aspirin for specific age groups with certain cardiovascular health criteria.
- Researchers are still exploring how aspirin prevents colorectal cancer, but evidence suggests it might target chronic inflammation and specific cancer subtypes that overexpress certain enzymes.
- Aspirin might not be suitable for everyone due to factors like age and potential side effects.
Colorectal cancer is a deadly health concern for both men and women. But has one of the best weapons against colorectal cancer been sitting overlooked in your medicine cabinet? Research suggests that an aspirin a day might help to keep colorectal cancer away.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer describes any cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. These cancers can also be referred to individually as colon cancer or rectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is common in both men and women, but it tends to affect men more often. An estimated one in 23 men will develop colorectal cancer within their lifetime.
It’s not only common, but deadly. Colorectal cancer ranks as the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
Routine screening remains the gold standard for reducing your risk of dying from colorectal cancer. But research suggests that some men might also benefit from adding a daily low dose of aspirin to their prevention toolkit.
Understanding Colorectal Cancer: Risks and Symptoms
Before we dive into the link between aspirin and colorectal cancer, you should know a few things about the common risk factors and symptoms of this cancer.
Tune into this video from Stanford Health Care to learn about colorectal cancer risk, symptoms, and prevention.
Risk Factors for Men
Just like other common types of cancer, there are some risk factors for colorectal cancer you can control and some you can’t. For example, you can’t control risk factors like your age, family history of colorectal cancer, race/ethnicity, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, or inherited syndromes. Gay and bisexual men may also have a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer, but more research is needed to confirm this risk factor.
Fortunately, there are several lifestyle factors that can help to mitigate your risk. These include your:
- Alcohol consumption. Regularly drinking alcohol can increase your risk for certain cancers, including colorectal cancer.
- Diet. An unhealthy diet with excess fats and animal protein may contribute to cancer risk.
- Physical activity. Men who aren’t physically active are at an increased risk for obesity and certain cancers.
- Tobacco use. Smoking and other forms of tobacco use significantly increase your risk for developing cancer.
Having one or more colorectal cancer risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you will develop this cancer.
Common Symptoms to Watch Out For
Colorectal cancer primarily affects the end of your digestive system. Unsurprisingly, most of the common symptoms of colorectal cancer show up in your bowel habits and abdomen.
Watch out for these symptoms:
- Bloody stools or rectal bleeding
- Changes in bowel habits, like diarrhea or constipation
- Ongoing abdominal discomfort, like cramps or pain
- Persistent feeling that you can’t empty your bowels
- Weakness or tiredness
- Unexpected weight loss
Aspirin: More Than Just a Pain Reliever
Many Americans keep a bottle of aspirin in their medicine cabinets for its use in relieving everyday aches and pains. Researchers have also explored aspirin’s use for preventing and treating a variety of other ailments.
The Traditional Uses of Aspirin
Aspirin, also called acetylsalicylic acid, has been around for over a century. Aspirin is a trusty go-to for treating headaches and body aches. It’s also commonly used for helping to bring down fever.
Aspirin: More Than Just a Pain Reliever
Aspirin does more than help soothe aches and pains. For decades, it’s been used as a blood thinner to help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Researchers have explored the use of aspirin in other areas, like improving erections or reducing inflammation in arthritis patients. More recently, researchers have studied aspirin for its use in preventing colorectal cancer.
How Aspirin Works in the Body
You might be wondering how one little pill can do so much. Watch this video from the British Heart Foundation to see just how aspirin works in your body.
Aspirin works by blocking pathways that could lead to inflammation, pain, and fever when your body is injured. It blocks an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, or COX, which reduces prostaglandin production. This is similar to using a fire extinguisher to put out a small fire before it has the chance to spread.
The Connection Between Aspirin and Colorectal Cancer Prevention
Aspirin has shown promise at reducing some people’s risk for developing colorectal cancer. Researchers continue to explore the potential risks and benefits of using aspirin to prevent colorectal cancer in specific populations.
Overview of Recent Studies on Aspirin and Colorectal Cancer
Research findings have sparked interest in the potential of aspirin to prevent colorectal cancer. For example, a study published in JAMA Oncology found that regular aspirin use, started at a younger age, was linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer. In fact, those who had regularly used aspirin for over five years before the age of 70 had a significantly reduced risk.
This suggests that starting aspirin early might be key to reaping its potential benefits against colorectal cancer. However, the risks don’t outweigh the benefits for everyone. For example, some people are at an increased risk for gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding when they take aspirin.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reviewed research on aspirin’s role in preventing colorectal cancer and cardiovascular events. They concluded that there is adequate evidence that aspirin use reduces the risk of colorectal cancer in adults after 5-10 years of use. They also stated that the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks of long-term aspirin use for groups meeting specific criteria.
The USPSTF issued recommendations for aspirin use in adults based on age, cardiovascular health, and risk of bleeding. They caution that the evidence for aspirin use to prevent colorectal cancer in adults younger than 50 or older than 69 years is insufficient to establish potential risks and benefits.
How Aspirin May Help Prevent Colorectal Cancer
Researchers have not yet pinpointed the exact mechanisms for how aspirin might work to prevent colorectal cancer. There are several evidence-based theories, but additional research is needed to confirm these results.
Aspirin may work by preventing chronic inflammation, which is known to fuel cancer development. Some research suggests that aspirin may work best in preventing colorectal cancers that overexpress COX-2. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that regular aspirin use was linked to reduced risk of colorectal cancers that overexpress COX-2, but not in cancers with low or absent COX-2 expression.
Some research suggests that aspirin use may only help to prevent certain subtypes of colorectal cancer. A study published in JAMA found that regular aspirin use was associated with decreased risk of BRAF-wild-type colorectal cancer, but not for BRAF-mutated cases.
Recent research also hints at aspirin influencing the gut microbiome positively, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria that thwart colorectal cancer’s progression.
The Role of Aspirin in Colorectal Cancer Treatment
The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true. However, aspirin may also play a role in improving colon cancer treatment outcomes.
Aspirin Use After Diagnosis
There’s still hope for those who have already received a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Early research produced mixed findings on the significance of regular aspirin use after diagnosis. However, emerging evidence suggests that regular aspirin use after colorectal cancer diagnosis may contribute to reducing the risk of dying from the disease.
The Impact of Aspirin on Survival Rates
Another study published in JAMA examined the link between aspirin use after colorectal cancer diagnosis on colorectal cancer–specific and overall survival. They found that regular aspirin use after diagnosis was associated with a 15 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer-specific mortality and a 21 percent reduction in overall mortality. This association was strongest in patients with tumors that overexpressed COX-2.
An extensive analysis of five randomized trials with long-term follow-up bolstered the argument for regular aspirin use to reduce colorectal cancer incidence and deaths. Spanning two decades of observation, the study spotlighted the significant risk reduction in both colorectal cancer incidence and mortality through sustained aspirin use, especially when taken in doses of at least 75 milligrams daily.
Aspirin and Colorectal Cancer: What Men Need to Know
Before you reach for a bottle of aspirin, you should learn more about your personal risk for colorectal cancer and your risk of adverse side effects from regular aspirin use.
Aspirin and Colorectal Cancer: What Men Need to Know
Taking a low-dose aspirin for five or more years may reduce your risk for developing or even dying from colorectal cancer. But remember, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Risks and limitations include:
- Age. Research does not support the use of aspirin to prevent colorectal cancer in adults over the age of 69. Recent research suggests that adults aged 70 and older who take daily low-dose aspirin may have a greater risk for developing advanced colorectal cancer.
- GI bleeding. Some people have an increased risk for GI bleeding when taking aspirin. Your risk depends on your personal health factors, such as your age, current medications, or current health conditions.
- Treatment plans vary. If you already have a colorectal cancer diagnosis, you should not add aspirin to your treatment plan without first discussing it with your doctor. Certain medications and cancer treatments can increase your risk for side effects when taking aspirin.
- Additional research is needed. Researchers are still working to identify the mechanisms behind aspirin’s effect on colorectal cancer risk and mortality. They are also working to determine aspirin’s effect on certain subtypes of colorectal cancer.
The Importance of Discussing Aspirin Use with Your Doctor
If you’re worried about your risk for colorectal cancer, you should discuss the potential risks and benefits of regular low-dose aspirin use with your doctor. They can evaluate your personal health history, risks, and guide you on whether aspirin is a suitable addition for your colorectal cancer prevention plan.
Aspirin has the potential to do more than remedy your daily aches and pains. Growing body of research suggests that aspirin could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer when taken regularly. It might even help to improve long term survival among people with a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Aspirin is one of many tools you might add to your arsenal of cancer prevention and treatment weapons, but it should never replace routine screening or the treatment recommended by your provider.
Some people are also at greater risk for experiencing adverse effects when taking aspirin. Don’t begin a daily aspirin regimen without first consulting your provider.
A Healthier and Happier Life with eDrugstore
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The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, so it is important to start screening for colorectal cancer at an early age, especially if you have risk factors such as a family history of colorectal cancer.
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Shelby is a public health professional with research and field experience in sexual and reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).