The Family Health Guide

Aspirin and cancer: Will a tablet a day keep tumors at bay?

Aspirin has been on the market for over a century, and its major chemical ingredient has been in medical use for more than 3,500 years, yet it's still the subject of intense scientific study and controversy. It earned its good name from its ability to relieve pain, soothe arthritis, and reduce fever, but its most important benefit is the ability to prevent heart attacks and strokes in people at high risk. It's found in nearly every medicine cabinet in America, but it doesn't get the respect it deserves. Research suggests aspirin may soon find a new role in fighting cancer.

The target: COX enzymes

The cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes are widely distributed in the human body. At least two forms exist, COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is responsible for generating chemicals that help control blood pressure, regulate blood flow to the kidneys, and protect the stomach lining — all good things. COX-1 also activates platelets, initiating the clotting process. That's good if you're bleeding from a wound, bad if you're having a heart attack. In contrast, COX-2 triggers the production of chemicals that cause fever, create inflammation in joints and other tissues, and aggravate pain — all bad things.

Like the other NSAIDs, aspirin inhibits both COX-1 and COX-2.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »