Aspirin therapy may raise the risk of pancreatic cancer in women

Hungry Heart

If you’re a woman who takes a daily aspirin to help prevent heart attacks, you might have gotten a jolt earlier this week when major newspapers and TV networks reported that aspirin therapy raises the risk of pancreatic cancer in women.

As usual, the headlines and 20-second health briefs managed to emphasize the frightening aspect of the reported study without delving into the details that bring this news down to earth.

Does daily aspirin therapy really cause pancreatic cancer? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that aspirin therapy comes without other health risks.

And fortunately there are healthier natural alternatives to the daily aspirin routine.
When studies collide


Let’s start with the new study that got all the attention Tuesday.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) reviewed data collected over 18 years for more than 88,000 women from the BWH Nurses’ Health Study. Announcing their findings earlier this week at a meeting sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research, the BWH team reported that the long-term use of aspirin may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer in women.


And that was the gist of the information you were left with if you caught the news while getting ready for work or if you only had a moment to glance at the headlines.

In fact, only 161 of the 88,000 women developed pancreatic cancer. But the fact that pancreatic cancer risk increased by more than 85 percent among women who reported taking two 325 mg aspirin tablets every day over many years, was significant enough to establish a clear association.

At a news conference, BWH researchers said they were surprised by their results. They also cautioned that based on this single study, women should not stop taking aspirin to help prevent heart attacks because the long range heart-protective benefits outweigh the relatively low possibility of risking pancreatic cancer.

I’m sure that one of the reasons their results were unexpected was that one year ago, a similar study came up with the exact opposite conclusion. In the 2002 research, seven years of data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study showed that among more than 28,000 postmenopausal women, the risk of pancreatic cancer DROPPED by over 40 percent in subjects who used aspirin therapy. And the cancer risk was lowest among women who took aspirin most often.

So even though some newscasters this week made the “aspirin may cause pancreatic cancer” conclusion sound like a done deal, the fact is that much more further research will be needed to sort out the true association between aspirin use and this very deadly form of cancer.
Taking the up with the down

In addition to all its previous good press as a heart health superstar, for some time, aspirin has been regarded as a possible cancer-fighter. Aspirin is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and NSAIDs have been shown to block Cox-2 enzymes that trigger the type of inflammation thought to be responsible for the creation of blood vessels that feed cancer cells and the promotion of cancer cell division.


But of course, there’s a down side. As we’ve discussed in other e-Alerts and Members Alerts, all NSAIDs, including aspirin and ibuprofen, have been shown to contribute to liver and kidney impairment, as well as gastrointestinal conditions such as bleeding and ulcers. Add to that a study late last year that associated NSAIDs with an increased risk of hypertension in women, and you have an over-the-counter medication that carries almost as many unhealthy side effects as some prescription drugs.

Orange you glad I said banana?

Ironically, there are many people who are taking a daily aspirin who may already be getting plenty of heart attack protection from the foods they eat.

In the e-Alert “Pain Takes a Holiday” (9/8/03) I told you about a 15-month study of almost 2,000 subjects that showed how those whose diets included the highest fruit intake had more than 70 percent reduced risk of heart attack and other cardiac problems compared with those who ate the least amount of fruit. On average, for every additional piece of fruit consumed each day, subjects showed a 10 percent reduction in coronary risk.


And vegetable intake produced a similar effect. Subjects who consumed vegetables three or more times each week had approximately 70 percent lower heart attack risk than those who ate no vegetables at all.

These heart protective benefits are most likely due to flavonoids, the substance that gives fruits and vegetables their color. Flavonoids have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities; two benefits that may help curb several chronic diseases, including heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, asthma, and type 2 diabetes.
Tea is another good source of flavonoids. The May 2003 issue of the HSI Members Alert featured an article about the specific flavonoids in both green and black teas. But the problem with getting these nutrients through tea drinking is that you would need to drink an enormous amount of tea every day to get a disease preventive effect.

With this in mind, researchers developed a supplement called TheaChol, a formulation that delivers 375 mg of different tea flavonoids; that’s the equivalent of 25 to 57 cups of tea. You can find out more about TheaChol at


What we know

Everyone is different, and each of us responds differently to any kind of supplement or medication. So one person may reap benefits from a daily aspirin, while another won’t. One person may suffer aspirin’s side effects, while another never has a problem.



So if you’re currently taking a daily aspirin for heart health, keep in mind that the long-term plusses and minuses are still largely unknown, but an increase in fruits and vegetables might be just the thing your heart has been hungry for.

To Your Good Health,
Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute



“Long Aspirin Use Tied to a Cancer” The New York Times, 10/28/03,

“Aspirin Raises Pancreatic Cancer Risk” Daniel DeNoon, WebMD Medical News, 10/27/03

“Aspirin Shown to Reduce Risk of Pancreatic Cancer” British Medical Journal, Vol. 325, Pg. 356, 8/17/02,

“Study: Use of Acetaminophen, NSAIDs, Linked to Hypertension” Harvard University Gazette, 10/31/02,

“More Research Showing Fruit and Veg Benefits; No Further Explanation”, 9/2/03,