Aspirin and Cancer: A Seriously Cost-Effective Measure


At Freakonomics, we’re all about finding cheap, easy solutions to life’s big problems. And judging by the results of a new study published in The Lancet, a rather large one just came down the pike. Turns out that aspirin may be one of the most effective measures to combat colon cancer. The study found that taking two aspirin pills a day for two years reduced the risk of colorectal cancer by 63 percent in a group of 861 people who have Lynch syndrome, and are therefore at a high risk for the disease.

Though there have been previous studies that suggest aspirin may effectively reduce the risk of cancer (like this one from 2010), according to the BBC, this most recent study was the first randomized control trial specifically for aspirin and cancer to prove it. So, while we’ve spent what probably amounts to tens of billions of dollars in pharmaceutical R&D trying to come up with an effective cancer drug, one of the best methods may have been already sitting in our medicine cabinet, at just a few bucks a bottle. 


Well we know why it hasnt been looked at in detailed testing before, how can pharmaceutical companies make money from a drug where the patent is expired...


Dangerous to write this type of thing. I see that you said that if taken by high risk group it has benefits. But the implied message is that aspirin daily is good for you. And unfortunately for the relatively healthy person, taking a daily aspirin (or two) could have unintended serious side effects. One being the thinning the blood...which can cause internal bleeding.
Don't get me wrong...i'm a huge Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics fan, but when it comes to medicine I get nervous promoting usage to people who are healthy even if its just implied and not said.


Warning: this study applies to people at a high genetic risk of these cancers. The risks of taking 600mg of aspirin a day for other people are substantial. This is a case where preventing something worse is the choice.


And (though I am not a doctor) I believe the specific risk is increased likelihood of stroke.

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This is great news for people with a rare, purely genetic cause of colon cancer. However, for all we know, taking aspirin might have the opposite effect in people who don't have this strange genetic mutation. You've got to study drugs in the population that you want to use them in, not in some proven-to-be-different irrelevant population.


Except that it has already been looked at in population studies. The difference is that this study was a double blind one, where part of the study group are given the drug, part a placebo. Given the low rate of cancer in the general population, and the long period aspirin apparently needs to be taken before the protective effect manifests, the only practical way to conduct this kind of study is in a high-risk population.

The really interesting part, from an economic perspective, is that the cancer protection comes for free if you're already taking it to lower the risk of heart disease or Alzheimers', or even to alleviate the pain of arthritis or rheumatism.

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If by "practical" you mean "cheap", I agree.

But the fact is that testing a drug in only men doesn't prove what works in women or children, testing it in only white people doesn't prove what works in Black and Asian people, and testing it in people whose cancer is triggered by a single, specific pathway doesn't prove what works in the many, many, many different forms of colon cancer.

Given that colon cancer is incredibly common, and that there are known non-genetic risk factors (age, diet, BMI, family history, polyps), and the intervention is so cheap, it is not actually impossible to round up ten thousand older folks and give half of them aspirin for the next ten or even twenty years and see who gets diagnosed with colon cancer and how many in each group are alive at the end of the study. That would give you real-world results that could be applied to everyone, not just people with a single, rare cause of colon cancer.

We just have to be willing to do it.



I think you are underestimating the difficulty & expense, not to mention the presumably avoidable cancers in the control group, and all those waiting 20 years for results from your study.

The real question, though, is why bother with this long, expensive trial, when population studies have given a pretty good answer right now, and at far less expense?

Andrea Taylor

Inflammation is a known component of the growth and spread of cancer. It's been known for some time that the use of anti-inflammatory agents (including aspirin and ibuprofen) is somewhat protective against cancer, however, the amount required to have a significant effect puts one at risk for other serious side effects from taking so much. It's really only a good tradeoff for people such as those in this study who are at much higher risk than the general population.

Sarah Condit

People always wonder why we can't cure cancer with all the millions of dollars people are donating. This gives a good explanation on why cancer can't be cured right now.

Joe D

Except I can no longer find aspirin on drugstore shelves, except occasionally in a child's dose. The manager can only tell me the distributor is no longer offering plain old aspirin.


Instead of a drug store, try your local supermarket or WalMart.

This assumes you're in the US: one of the minor culture shocks of living in Europe was finding that aspirin cost IIRC about 10 CHF (about $8 at the time) for a dozen tablets.


The really fascinating aspect of this post is how amazing aspirin is, whether it prevents cancer or not. Aspirin is over 100 years old and its benefits are still being learned. It's a miracle drug. My dad took 20+ pills at one point for his heart. And among all those amazing drugs was one 80 mg St Joseph's Aspirin. It's wild to think about.


Were do i buy Asprin and how much?