A new study suggests that aspirin and other similar painkillers may help protect against skin cancer. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings indicate that skin cancer prevention may be added to the benefits of these commonly used medications.
Previous studies suggest that taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, which include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, as well as a variety of other nonprescription and prescription drugs, can decrease an individual’s risk of developing some types of cancer. Sigrún Alba Jóhannesdóttir, BSc, of Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, and her colleagues looked to see if the medications might decrease the risk of the three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.
The researchers analyzed medical records from northern Denmark from 1991 through 2009 and identified 1,974 diagnoses of squamous cell carcinoma, 13,316 diagnoses of basal cell carcinoma, and 3,242 diagnoses of malignant melanoma. They compared information, including prescription data, from these patients with information from 178,655 individuals without skin cancer.
Individuals who filled more than two prescriptions for NSAIDs had a 15 percent decreased risk for developing squamous cell carcinoma and a 13 percent decreased risk for developing malignant melanoma than those who filled two or fewer prescriptions for the medications, especially when the drugs were taken for seven or more years or taken at high intensity. Individuals who took NSAIDs did not seem to benefit from a reduced risk of developing basal cell carcinoma in general, although they did have a 15 percent and 21 percent reduced risk of developing this type of cancer on less-exposed sites (body areas other than the head and neck) when they took them long term or at high intensity, respectively.
“We hope that the potential cancer-protective effect of NSAIDs will inspire more research on skin cancer prevention,” said Ms. Jóhannesdóttir. “Also, this potential cancer-protective effect should be taken into account when discussing benefits and harms of NSAID use.”
Still, research has not been unanimous in that finding: one large 2008 report found no link between NSAIDs and melanoma.
The drugs have also been linked to an increased risk of kidney cancer and come with known bleeding risks - so more research is needed to weigh the possible harms and benefits of the drugs outside of pain relief, researchers said.
But the lead author on the new study said it would make sense if NSAIDs were tied to skin cancer risk.
“NSAIDs work by inhibiting specific enzymes involved in inflammation,” Sigrun Alba Johannesdottir, from Aarhus University Hospital, told Reuters Health in an email.
The researchers found that people with a history of using aspirin and other NSAIDs had a 13 percent lower risk of melanoma compared to non-NSAID users, and a 15 percent lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma, another less-deadly form of skin cancer.
There was no difference in the risk of basal cell carcinoma, a third cancer type, based on whether or not Danes had used NSAIDs, according to findings published Tuesday in Cancer.
When the researchers looked specifically at people who had filled prescriptions for the drugs over at least seven years, and used them twice a week or more, they found a stronger link: long-term, high-intensity NSAID users had a 46 percent lower risk of melanoma, a 35 percent lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma and a 17 percent lower chance of getting basal cell carcinoma.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 60,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with melanoma in 2008, the most recent year with available data, and just under 9,000 died from the disease.
About two million people nationwide are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers each year, but only about 5,000 people die from squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas combined.
Aspirin and other NSAIDs can be bought over-the-counter in the U.S. for a few cents per pill.