Could a Common Painkiller Cut Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer?

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What is it about aspirin?

The humble, chalky pill is already linked to reduced rates of heart attack fatalities, and some studies suggest it could reduce the risk of colon cancer. Now, a study out of New York University Medical Center has created a speculative connection between aspirin use and a reduced risk of epithelial ovarian cancer, the most common form of ovarian cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, 23,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and around 14,000, or 61 percent, will die. The disease takes a high toll because its symptoms are so easily ignored, and the cancer in many newly diagnosed patients is often quite advanced. Needless to say, any news about prevention, no matter how rudimentary, is most welcome.

And this news is no exception: Scientists at NYU tracked the health of 748 women over the course of 12 years and found that women who took aspirin regularly (two or three times a week) for at least six months were less likely to develop epithelial ovarian cancer than those who never took aspirin. And, the researchers say, women who took aspirin consistently over the course of two to four years were "significantly" less likely to be diagnosed with this type of ovarian cancer than women who never reported aspirin use. The study's authors speculate that the anti-inflammatory qualities of aspirin may cut down on chronic inflammation, which may contribute to epithelial ovarian cancer. Women should not, however, rush out and buy an economy-size bottle of aspirin just yet — this study is preliminary, and taking too much aspirin presents its own health risks.

Dr. Paolo Toniolo, a professor of epidemiology in New York University's department of gynecology, is also one of the study's lead authors. He spoke with Wednesday about his team's research and its potential impact. How many women were actually involved in this study?

Dr. Toniolo: We took blood from more than 14,000 healthy women in 1985. Over the years, 68 of these women developed epithelial ovarian cancer. From the rest of the women, we found women who were about the same age as the women with ovarian cancer, and from those subjects, we selected at random 10 women as control subjects for each woman with cancer. So roughly 748 women were involved in the aspirin study.

How seriously should women take this study? In other words, should we all start downing aspirin in hopes of protecting against ovarian cancer?

Dr. Toniolo: These results might lead to something promising down the line, after more study. But it would be extremely irresponsible to tell women to start taking aspirin every day just on the basis of this study. Clinically, this study doesn't point to any immediate action. But in terms of research, this study backs up the results of previous aspirin studies. Also, aspirin can cause side effects, like bleeding.

Are there proven ways of reducing the risk of ovarian cancer?

Dr. Toniolo: Unfortunately, at this point, only using oral contraceptives and having more pregnancies are thought to reduce risk of ovarian cancer. Oral contraceptives because they regulate hormones, and pregnancies because while a woman is pregnant, her ovaries are in a sort of holding pattern, which is ultimately healthy. On a day-to-day basis, women should avoid using talc-based "feminine" products as well.

What age women are most at risk for ovarian cancer? What steps should they take to prevent or insure early diagnosis of the disease?

Dr. Toniolo: Ovarian cancer tends to occur in middle and old age. But risk factors, like menstrual cycles or endometriosis, occur when women are younger. And as far as diagnosis goes, there are some blood tests that look promising but aren't completely proven as a screening tool. An average woman [with no enhanced risk factors, like a family history of ovarian cancer] should talk to her doctor to assess her risk.