A study published last month offers some new hope for helping prevent ovarian cancer — in the form of a baby aspirin — and may add to the growing body of evidence that inflammation plays a role in the disease. But researchers caution that more study is needed.
Ovarian cancer, the fifth most common cause of cancer-related death among women in this country, “is a high-fatality cancer, primarily because it’s usually diagnosed at a later stage,” says Marian Neuhouser of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. There’s no diagnostic test for it and symptoms are maddeningly nonspecific, which makes preventing it from developing even more vital.
The study, led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in the journal JAMA Oncology, found that women who had been recently taking low-dose (or baby) aspirin at least twice per week were 23 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than nonusers or past users. The results were based on data from more than 200,000 women followed for more than 25 years as part of the Nurses’ Health Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. An earlier study had found that almost daily aspirin use could reduce ovarian cancer risk by 10 percent.
Interestingly, in the Harvard study, use of standard-dose aspirin didn’t appear to affect ovarian cancer risk. Use of acetaminophen also didn’t seem to have an effect. However, long-term use of non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, were associated with increased risk.
The differing results and possibility of statistical anomalies raise questions that will need to be explored in future research. But because aspirin is known to lower inflammation, authors of the study believe their results bolster the theory that inflammation is a culprit in ovarian cancer. Inflammation occurs with ovulation, and it can also be chronic, because of environmental pollutants, harmful lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, and some health conditions.
Does this mean that women who don’t already take low-dose aspirin should start? Not necessarily, said Mollie Barnard, who led the study as a doctoral fellow in epidemiology at Harvard. “If future studies confirm our findings, conversations between doctors and patients on the risks and benefits of low-dose aspirin use may broaden to include ovarian cancer prevention.”
Carrie Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Nutrition by Carrie and a contributing writer for
The Washington Post.