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Ovarian Cancer Health Center

Pain Relievers May Reduce Cancer Risk

Painkillers May Cut Risk of Ovarian and Breast Cancer by Lowering Estrogen Levels
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 23, 2010 -- For some time, studies have suggested that aspirin and other over-the-counter painkillers may protect against breast and ovarian cancer. Now new research may help explain why.

Postmenopausal women in the study who took aspirin, other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil, Aleve, and Motrin, or Tylenol (acetaminophen) on a regular basis had lower estrogen levels than women who did not take the pain relievers.

The declines were modest, but the findings bolster suspicions that the painkillers may reduce the risk of most breast and ovarian cancers by suppressing the hormones that fuel them.

Study researcher Margaret A. Gates, ScD, says the association must be confirmed before analgesics can be recommended for cancer prevention. That's because the risks may outweigh potential benefits.

Regular aspirin and NSAID use are associated with rare, but possibly serious, stomach and intestinal bleeding, and Tylenol has been linked to liver failure.

Gates is a research fellow in epidemiology at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

"A randomized trial that directly measures the impact of analgesic use on hormone levels in a similar population of postmenopausal women would be helpful," she tells WebMD.

Earlier Studies Show Lower Cancer Risk

Over the last decade, no fewer than a dozen studies have suggested an association between frequent aspirin or NSAID use and a reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancer, but almost all the research has been observational.

In one of the most widely reported studies, Columbia University researchers questioned close to 3,000 women with and without breast cancer about their aspirin use.

They found a 20% lower breast cancer risk among women who said they were regular aspirin users, compared to infrequent aspirin users.

Just last year, Brigham and Women's researchers reported that breast cancer survivors who took aspirin regularly had a lower risk of cancer recurrence or death from their disease than women who did not take aspirin; the breast cancer survivors also had a lower risk of having their cancer spread beyond the breast.

The researchers followed 4,000 female nurses enrolled in the ongoing Nurses Health Study (NHS) who had been treated for breast cancer at least a year earlier.

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