Painkillers and Breast Cancer: What  s the Link?

Could an over-the-counter treatment help reduce breast cancer patients’ risk of recurrence? A preliminary study, published in an recent issue of Cancer Research, found that obese postmenopausal women who were receiving hormone treatment for breast cancer—and also routinely taking aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)—were less likely to have a future recurrence of cancer.

The Study

The review, performed by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, included medical records from 440 women, ages 55 to 60, with hormone-responsive (aka estrogen receptor-positive) breast cancer. Hormone-responsive breast cancer is the most common form of the disease, accounting for about 66 to 75 percent of all cases. In the group studied, 159 routinely used aspirin or other types of NSAIDS, most commonly for arthritis; the remaining 281 women did not regularly use painkillers.

The researchers found that just 6% of the women who used painkillers had cancer recurrence, while the recurrence rate in those who did not routinely use painkillers was 12%. And even in those women who used painkillers but did have recurrence, researchers found it took an average of 6.5 years for the cancer to come back, while in the non-painkiller group, the average recurrence was at a little over four years.

"It’s important to note that these findings are specifically for aspirin and other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve)," says University of Texas at Austin professor and study author Linda deGraffenried, PhD. "This doesn’t apply to acetaminophen (Tylenol), which is an effective painkiller, but acts differently in the body than the others."

How It Works

Obesity is associated with increased estrogen production and inflammation, both of which promote the growth and spread of cancerous tissue and interfere with a treatment known as aromatase inhibitors, which is used to treat hormone-responsive forms of breast cancer. Researchers suspect that by reducing inflammation, aspirin and other NSAIDs allow hormone therapy to work more effectively to fight cancer reoccurrence.

The Bottom Line

This study relied on information from medical charts and did not involve interviews or other contact with participating women. Clinical trials are now necessary to confirm these findings and provide data that will allow medical experts to make reliable recommendations for treatment with painkillers.

"You should talk to your health care provider before taking aspirin or other NSAIDs on a regular basis," deGraffenried advises. "Even though many past and current studies show that low-dose aspirin therapy decreases inflammation and improves outcome in cancer and other medical conditions, in some situations, there could be serious side effects with regular use."

Linda de Graffenried, PhD, reviewed this article. 


deGrafferied, Linda, PhD, phone interview and email correspondence with author.

Bowers, LW, Maximo IXF, Brenner AJ, et al. "NSAID Use Reduces Breast Cancer Recurrence in Overweight and Obese Women: Role of Prostaglandin-Aromatase Interactions." Cancer Research. August 15, 2014. 74(16):4446-57