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This research is the latest in the debate over whether anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the risk of breast cancer. Getty Images
  • Researchers say women with a higher risk of breast cancer can lower that risk by taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil and Aleve.
  • About 1 million women are diagnosed each year in the United States with benign breast disease, a condition that increases their risk of cancer.
  • Experts say the research is important, but more studies need to be done to determine if this risk reduction is indeed real.

Women with an elevated risk of breast cancer can lower their chances of getting the disease by as much as 40 percent by taking ibuprofen or naproxen.

That was the message that Mayo Clinic researchers delivered over the weekend at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas.

The scientists said ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can improve a woman’s chances of survival after being diagnosed with benign breast disease.

About 1 million women in the United States receive the diagnosis each year, a condition that increases their risk of getting breast cancer.

“These are pretty amazing findings,” Jason Cohen, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist and co-director of The Breast Center at Surgery Group of Los Angeles at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, told Healthline. “… cutting a high-risk patient’s breast cancer risk almost in half. But until we see the data and true long-term effects, it is hard to say what this really means.”

According to the American Cancer Society, benign (noncancerous) breast conditions are common. Most breast changes are benign, the group says, and benign conditions are not life threatening.

Some, though, are linked with higher risks of getting breast cancer later and symptoms can be similar.

Researchers looked at women who had a benign breast biopsy at the Mayo Clinic between 1992 and 2001 and the types of medications they took for how long.

The researchers also looked at who developed breast cancer after the initial benign biopsy.

“We found that women who reported using ibuprofen or naproxen had an approximately 40 percent reduction in breast cancer risk while women who reported using aspirin had no reduction in breast cancer risk,” said Amy Degnim, MD, a breast surgical oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, in a press release. “Women who used the drugs more frequently on a regular basis also had greater protection from breast cancer.”

Degnim said the research suggests more clinical studies should be done. She cautioned the research wasn’t a clinical study and not all women should take the drugs.

Cohen said dosage is important.

“We don’t know if the recommendation is daily or once a week,” said Cohen. “Once we have dosing, we will then have to see what patients’ side effects may be, while we measure risk-benefit ratio.”

“It’s important to remember that not all cancers behave the same and that even similar cancers can act differently in different people and different environments,” he said. “There is a clear downside to long-term NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) use. Risks include developing bleeding, ulcers, and possibly even kidney failure.”

When asked if the benefit would outweigh the risk, Cohen said, “The risks will really depend on the duration and how high a dose will need to be taken.”

Leslie Bernstein, PhD, is a professor at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California.

She cautioned that it’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of over-the-counter medications such as Advil or Aleve.

“These are generally used to relieve pain and use may be sporadic, so that in surveys of use, the amount of use may depend on how the investigator asks the questions,” Bernstein told Healthline.

“Effects of (NSAIDs) such as these on breast cancer risk may vary by age and body mass index or weight. And patterns of use of each of these drugs may vary by area or the country or time period. Aspirin has been around a long time. Other drugs have become available over-the-counter more recently, and they have become more popular and, thus, aspirin usage has declined some.”

She said previous studies have shown aspirin lowers cancer risk.

“Are the different study findings an artifact of how the study was done, who was in the study, or the type of breast cancer the woman had?” she noted.

Nonetheless, she said, we shouldn’t discount the recent findings.

“The results of the Mayo Clinic study are important,” she said. “They add to the growing literature that shows that NSAIDs may lower risk of breast cancer.”

Dennis R. Holmes, MD, a breast cancer surgeon and researcher for Adventist Health in Southern California, said an additional benefit to those at higher risk of getting breast cancer is the frequent use and variety of reasons people take anti-inflammatory drugs.

“One can assume that regular use of ibuprofen or naproxen taken for other conditions, (like) arthritis, is probably sufficient to prevent some cancers,” he said. “Ultimately we would consider these to be hypothesis-generating findings that should inform the design of formal. Prospective studies (that) specify the dosage and frequency of each anti-inflammatory agent.”

While opinions vary concerning the study’s conclusions, there seems to be consensus it can lead to more beneficial research as to the relationship between anti-inflammatory drugs and breast cancer.

“It is unlikely that the findings of this study would have any practical impact on current breast cancer prevention strategies,” Alex Polyakov, MD, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told Healthline.

“It is also unclear if benefits would outweigh the risks, as overall morbidity and possibly mortality may increase with more widespread NSAID use. The study is important in a sense that, if there’s a decrease in breast cancer risk, there must be a mechanism that produces this benefit. If this mechanism can be elucidated and replicated in a novel therapy, without the risks associated with NSAIDs, it would be a very significant achievement.”