Harvard Women's Health Watch

Can aspirin help fight cancer?

Doctors have discovered a new use for this centuries-old pain reliever.

As far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, physicians understood that the bark of the willow tree had the ability to relieve pain, bring down fever, and reduce inflammation. In the late 1800s, German chemist Felix Hoffmann of the Bayer pharmaceutical company figured out how to chemically synthesize the active ingredient in willow bark—salicylic acid—into a potent pain reliever. By the early 20th century, Bayer aspirin had become a staple in nearly every home medicine chest.

Today, aspirin is still one of the most commonly used medications in the world, with an estimated 100 billion tablets produced each year. Part of the reason for this pain reliever's enduring success is the new uses researchers keep discovering for it. By the 1970s, they had recognized aspirin's ability to prevent blood platelets from clumping together and forming clots—a finding that has led to the daily use of low-dose aspirin for heart attack and stroke prevention in some people.

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