Cancer in general is one of the leading causes of death in the United States today. And pancreatic cancer has become a growing sub problem of the overall issue in the U.S. It is extremely difficult to treat pancreatic cancer; therefore physicians suggest that people take any preventative measures possible to reduce their risk of getting it.

A group of researchers now say that something as simple as taking aspirin can lower your risk of getting pancreatic cancer. But how can this tiny pill potentially save your life?

The New York Times reports on a recent study showing that aspirin can reduce the risk of acquiring pancreatic cancer. “A new study adds to the evidence that low-dose aspirin, known to reduce the risk for heart disease, may also reduce the risk for pancreatic cancer,” according to The Times. The study was recently published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

How was the study conducted? Researchers spent five years testing the effects of aspirin on lowering the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Their hypothesis proved to be fruitful. The Times explains, “Researchers compared aspirin use in 362 pancreatic cancer patients with 690 randomly chosen controls. Participants were asked about past and present regular use of aspirin, defined as at least once a week for three months.”

What were the results?

Researchers were excited about their findings. Just as they suspected, low dose aspirin lowered the risk of pancreatic cancer.

“After controlling for age, sex, race, smoking, diabetes and other variables, the researchers found that regular aspirin use lowered the risk for pancreatic cancer by 48 percent. Patients who had been taking aspirin regularly for one to three years reduced their risk by 43 percent; those who had been taking it for seven to 20 years reduced risk by 56 percent,” according to The Times.

Why does aspirin cause a decreased risk of pancreatic cancer? How does it work in the body to accomplish this task? Well, unfortunately, scientists do not know the answer to that question just yet. Dr. Risch, from the Yale School of Public Health, who authored the study, told The Times, “Pancreatic cancer takes 10 to 15 years to develop. We don’t know if the aspirin is preventing the formation of new tumors or helping the immune system to control them later on. Empirically it seems to do something, and at this point that’s all we can say.”

But Dr. Lapook of CBS news, who endorsed the study (but was not a part of it), tried to explain how aspirin could be lowering the pancreatic cancer risk.

He said, “Aspirin interrupts the inflammatory pathway in the body. It turns out those same pathways look like they're part of the pathways that can lead to cancer. If you interrupt those pathways, theoretically that might be the reason why you lower the risk for cancer. We do not know that for sure, but that's one thought. There is also a suggestion that not only is there a role for aspirin in preventing cancer but possibly in treating a cancer like colorectal cancer.”

Are there any side effects to taking aspirin every day?

Like any other medicine, taking aspirin almost daily could have serious side effects and cause health issues in your body. CBS explains, “Aspirin can cause gastrointestinal ulceration and bleeding, it can cause bleeding in the brain. These are potentially very serious complications. So yet again we say you have to talk to your doctor, you have to weigh the benefits. This is personalized medicine.”

You might be wondering why it is so important to take preventative measures when it comes to pancreatic cancer. While no one wants to acquire any type of cancer, pancreatic cancer is particularly dangerous as the survival rate is extremely low. The treatment for pancreatic cancer is The National Cancer Institute reports, “Pancreatic cancer has a 93 percent fatality rate, and there will be about 46,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths from the disease this year.”

Why are fatality rates so high? How is it treated?

Well first your medical team is supposed to decipher what stage your cancer is in. Then based on the stage they come up with a treatment plan that takes into account your body type and any medications you are already taking or any other health problems you already have. Regardless of what stage you are in, your doctor’s first step will probably be to suggest surgery. Surgery is important for trying to remove the affected area. But usually by the time people are diagnosed, the cancer has unfortunately spread to other parts of the body beyond the pancreas.

However, if a person is in an earlier stage, then surgery is a first line of defense. Next your doctor might suggest ablation, which is a rather interesting process. This technique involves the destruction of tumors using hot or cold methods instead of surgery. This includes microwave thermotherapy, cryosurgery (destroying a tumor by freezing it), and radiofrequency ablation. A process called embolization is also sometimes used to do this, which is when doctors inject substances into a person’s artery to try to block the blood flow to cancer cells, causing them to die.

For cancers not in an early stage doctors will prescribe radiation and chemotherapy as well. Radiation of course consists of radiation beams being targeted to hit your body at the angles where the cancer is located. But the side effects are harsh. They include: skin changes (where radiation hits it), vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and no appetite. And then there is the dreaded chemotherapy. Chemotherapy usually includes anticancer drugs that are injected into your veins or taken by mouth, but the side effects are terrible. It includes all the side effects of radiation plus hair loss, increased risk of infection and more. Your doctor is also supposed to help you control your level of pain during this awful process.

Do you see now why physicians are urging people to take preventative measures? The American Cancer Society hopes that this information will help people be their own best advocate.

CBS news offers statistics on the dangers of pancreatic cancer.

“Pancreatic cancer kills close to 40,000 Americans each year and has a 5-year survival rate of only 5 percent. The authors suggested that people with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer or other risk factors for the disease may want to consider a daily aspirin regimen to reduce their risk.” While aspirin can have dangerous side effects, as of right now, the risks seem to outweigh the cost of not taking it, especially if a person has a genetic disposition to pancreatic cancer. 

Gerry Oginski
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