Can Painkillers Reduce Skin Cancer Risk?

A study conducted in Denmark suggests that people who use anti-inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen may have a decreased risk of developing skin cancer. It's an interesting development, but experts warn that more research is needed and that avoided excess UV exposure is still the most important preventative measure.

Picture by Ashley Webb

The study analysed the medical records of more than 180,000 Danish patients, and found a 15 per cent decreased risk for squamous cell carcinoma and a 13 percent decreased risk for developing malignant melanoma amongst those who had received more than two prescriptions for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The effect was more pronounced amongst those who took higher dosages of the drugs or had an extended prescription history with them.

While there's an interesting correlation, it seems plausible that people requiring regular doses of painkillers might be outdoors less and thus less exposed to UV rays anyway. In a statement issued by the Australian Science Media Centre, Terry Slevin, chair of the Australian Cancer Council's national skin cancer committee, highlights that issue:

Incidence of melanoma in Australia is double the rate experienced in Denmark and UV exposure is more than double. The study does not attempt to collect or report levels of UV exposure and as UV exposure is a major determinant of skin cancer risk there is a prospect that UV exposure is a major unmeasured confounder in the study.

Australian Cancer Council CEO Professor Ian Olver called for more research: "We need more studies in different populations to further test the role if aspirin and we need to be more precise about the dosing that is needed and whether side effects such as bleeding will limit the use of aspirin as a cancer preventive drug."

While aspirin can be a useful drug in many contexts, it should only be taken with careful planning. For instance, while aspirin can play a preventative role in heart disease, it's of most use if you already have a bad cardiac history.


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