Aspirin Reduces the Risk of Several Gastrointestinal Cancers

With everyone focused on surviving the Coronavirus epidemic, it’s easy to miss articles dealing with issues other than COVID-9   The Annals of Oncology published a review study performed by Cristina Bosetti, M.D. and colleagues from Milan, Italy.  They performed a literature search examining studies looking at the relationship between aspirin consumption and gastrointestinal cancer.

They found that taking one or two aspirin per week was associated with a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer, colon and rectal cancer, squamous cell esophageal cancer, stomach cancer and hepatobiliary cancer.  When they looked specifically at colon and rectal cancer, they found the risk of developing the disease dropped with increased aspirin dosages. “An aspirin dosage between 75-100 mg a day was associated with a 10% reduction in a person’s risk of developing cancer compared to people not taking aspirin.  A dose of 325 mg a day was associated with a 35% reduction and a dose of 500 mg a day was associated with a 50% reduction in risk.

To obtain this type of risk reduction, patients had to be taking the prophylactic aspirin for a long time, at least 10 years. The ingestion of aspirin may have lowered the risk of intestinal cancer, but it carried with it the increased risk of bleeding.

Much has been written recently about the lack of protection against cardiovascular disease in patients without diabetes or documented heart disease who take daily aspirin. That may be true but there does appear to be a positive effect in preventing intestinal cancer. This is a complicated topic which should be discussed with your physician before embarking on a course of prevention.

PLCO Data Support Protective Effect of Aspirin in Preventing Deaths

In recent months, the US Preventive Task Force has recommended adults without diabetes or documented coronary artery disease avoid taking baby aspirin to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They believe the risk of bleeding outweighs the benefit derived. They still recommend aspirin prevention in men with known cardiovascular, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes.

The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Trial (PLCO) just made the decision-making much more complex. In their study, reported in this month’s JAMA Network Open, they found that taking aspirin as infrequently as 1 to 3 times per month reduced the risk of all-cause and cancer related mortality compared to no aspirin in their study with 146,152 patient participants.

Weekly use of aspirin significantly reduced the risk of mortality from both GI and colorectal cancer and all mortality endpoints irrespective of how heavy you were. When the study looked at 12.5 years of aspirin use 1 to 3 times a month, compared to none, the all-cause mortality was reduced by 16%. The results were even more encouraging when aspirin was taken three or more times per week.

The PLCO Cancer Screening Trial involved participants aged 55-74 who were randomized to a cancer screening group or a control group at 10 United States Medical Centers. This review looked at men and women 65 years or older at baseline. While this study showed a beneficial effect of aspirin in the elderly, other recent studies have been less favorable. The ASPREE study, Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly, found that individuals taking 100 mg of aspirin daily were at increased risk for all-cause mortality compared to those taking a placebo.

The decision to take low dose aspirin, or not, is something you should discuss with your physician so that you can tailor the situation and risks to your personalized needs.

Blood Test Detects Gastrointestinal Cancers

David Wolpin, M.D. MPH of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discussed with online periodical MedPage Today the results of his research on detecting gastrointestinal cancers with a simple blood test. The test is not yet commercially available and is still in its developmental stages. The blood test did not detect cancer in 2000 cancer free individuals but did find it in the 135 GI cancer patients being evaluated at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In most cases they were able to pinpoint the location of the malignancy in the GI tract based on the testing used. The more advanced the cancer, the more accurate the blood test was.

The report was part of a larger study named the Circulating Cell-Free Genome Study. This is a multi-center trial looking at over 15,000 individual patients from over 142 different medical institutions. The hope is that as the sophistication and accuracy of the test are improved, the ability of physicians to detect cancers early would improve as well.

Dr. Wolpin reminds us that most cancers that occur in the gastrointestinal tract are difficult to find and screen for and are detected at an advanced stage. He hopes that lives can be saved by finding the cancers early with a simple blood test.

New Approaches to Early Prostate Cancer

Men today diagnosed with early prostate cancer, Gleason Stage 7 or less, have the option of a new arm of care called watchful waiting. With periodic PSA blood tests, prostate biopsies and imaging studies; urologists and oncologists can follow the patient with disease felt to be not aggressive rather than radiate the lesion or surgically remove it as was done in the past. In some cases, they can watch it even closer with an approach called Active Surveillance. This week a new research treatment was made public.

MedPage Today published work by Steve Raman, M.D., of the UCLA Medical Center on his TULSA-PRO ablation clinical trial. One hundred-fifteen men with localized and low, or intermediate, risk prostate cancer underwent ultrasound blasting of the cancer using the MRI imaging equipment to direct the therapy. In his study, prostate volume decreased from 39 cubic centimeters before treatment down to 3.8 cubic centimeters after a year. Clinically significant cancer was eliminated in 80% of the study participants and 65% had no evidence of cancer after biopsy at one year. PSA blood levels decreased by 95%. The side effects were minimal with low rates of incontinence and impotence and few bowel complications.

The study leader noted that if prostate cancer reoccurred then the modalities of repeat ultrasound treatment, surgery or radiation were still possible. In August 2019, the FDA approved the TULSA-PRO Device for use. The procedure involves placing a rod-shaped device into the urethra. The device has ten ultrasound probes which are controlled by a computer program while the patient is observed in an MRI machine. The probes shoot out sound waves that heat and destroy the tissue the sound is directed at. The procedure is an outpatient procedure which can also be used to shrink a non-cancerous enlarged prostate from benign prostatic hypertrophy.

Sunscreen Ingredients are Absorbed says FDA

For years public health officials, dermatologists and primary care physicians have been encouraging people to apply sunscreen before going out into the outdoors to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancers.  We are taught to apply it in advance of exposure by about 30 minutes and to reapply it every few hours especially if we are sweating and swimming.   Living in South Florida, sun exposure is a constant problem so we tend to wear long sleeve clothing with tight woven fabrics to reduce sun exposure.  My 15-month old grandson, visiting last weekend was smeared with sunscreen by his well-meaning parents before we went out to the children’s playground nearby.

These precautions seemed reasonable and sensible until an article appeared in JAMA Dermatology recently.  An article authored by M. Mata, PhD. evaluated the absorption of the chemical constituents of sunscreen after applying it as directed four times per day.  The article was accompanied by a supporting editorial from Robert M. Cliff M.D., a former commissioner in the FDA and now with Duke University School of Medicine and K. Shanika, M.D., PhD.

The study applied sunscreen four times a day to 24 subjects. Blood levels were drawn to assess absorption of the sunscreen products avobenzene, oxybenzone and octocrylene.  The results of the blood testing showed that the levels of these chemicals far exceeded the recommended dosages by multiples. The problem is that no one has evaluated these chemicals to see if at those doses it is safe or toxic causing illness?

The editorial accompanying the findings encourages the public to keep using sunscreen but cautions that the FDA and researchers must quickly find out if exposure to these levels is safe for us?  We do know that the chemical oxybenzone causes permanent bleaching and damage to coral reefs in the ocean from small amounts deposited by swimmers coated with sunscreen. The state of Hawaii has actually banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone to protect their coral reefs.

The fact that these chemicals have been approved and are strongly absorbed with no idea of the consequences is solely the result of elected officials wanting “small government” and reducing funding to the oversight organizations responsible for making sure what we use is not toxic.  It is a classic example of greed and profit over public safety.  The research on the safety of these chemicals must be funded and addressed soon. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Dermatology need to advise parents of youngsters whose minds and bodies are in the development and growth stages what is best to do for their children – sooner rather than later.

American College of Physicians Breast Cancer Screening Guidance

The American College of Physicians released four guidance statements on detection of breast cancer in women with average risk and no symptoms of breast cancer.

  1. Doctors should discuss with their patients the pros and cons of screening with mammography for breast cancer in asymptomatic women with a modest risk of disease between ages 40- 49 years. The potential risks of screening are felt to outweigh the benefits.
  2. Clinicians should screen average risk women aged 50-74 years for breast cancer with mammography every other year.
  3. Clinicians should discontinue breast cancer screening in women aged 75 years or greater with an average risk of breast cancer and a life expectancy of 10 years or less.
  4. Clinical breast examinations SHOULD NOT be used to screen for breast cancer of average risk women of all ages.

These guidance statements DO NOT APPLY to women with a higher risk of breast cancers including those with abnormal screening results in the past, a personal history of breast cancer or a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

At the same meeting, data was presented discussing the problems with supplemental whole breast ultrasound in women with dense breasts.  The concern is that all this testing leads to invasive biopsies, over diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in 1 in 5 patients and complications and increased cost to patients and insurers.  Like most recommendations on breast cancer, and prostate cancer in men, the results and conclusions from following these guidelines will not be apparent until 10 to 15 years from now.

Today’s adult women will either benefit from these suggestions, which have even included no longer teaching adult women how to perform breast self-exam, or they will be the unsuspecting research victims of cost containment. I question the competence of physicians in examining problematic breast disease if they are not being trained how to evaluate a breast and following that with clinical exams. In surgery we usually do not feel a clinician is competent and fully aware of the pitfalls of a procedure until the surgeon has done 200 or more. We additionally know that doing the procedure frequently results in better results than performing a procedure infrequently.

How will that apply if young physicians no longer examine breasts routinely?  How many, and how often, will they need to do an adequate exam to be able to perform when there is a real issue?  Do we actually wish to create a narrow panel of breast experts only at Centers of Excellence who actually know how to examine a breast and use the available imaging modalities safely and effectively?  It seems these ACP recommendations move in that direction.

For several years now I have been a supporter and champion of our community’s Women’s’ Center associated with Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Run by astute future thinking clinicians and researchers, and stocked with state of the art imaging equipment, it provides an option to meet with a counselor, assess your breast cancer risk and enter a screening pathway most individually suited to your personalized needs.  I will continue to support that choice.

Cannabis & Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Chronic Non-Cancer Pain

My 90 year old patient with spinal stenosis, diffuse osteoarthritis and now polycythemia vera was in for an office visit. He had been to see his hematologist and had been phlebotomized removing a unit of blood to control his overproducing bone marrow. He mentioned that the hematologist had sent him to a medical marijuana clinic run by a pain physician colleague of his.

The patient proudly showed me his marijuana registration license. “It doesn’t work you know. In fact I feel poorly after I take some. I have tried the oils and some edibles but it really doesn’t affect my pain in a positive way.”

Many of my patients now are licensed to receive medical marijuana for chronic pain. It’s a big business here in the state of Florida where senior citizens with chronic aches and pains are always looking for that magical pill to restore their vitality and youthfulness. His experience is unfortunately supported in the medical literature. In the May 25, 2018 issue of Pain magazine which looked at the pain relief of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain and 48 other non-cancer pain conditions. The study was a literature review looking at the 104 studies published on this subject.

The findings were sobering and disappointing. They found that cannabinoids had no appreciable positive impact on pain relief. In addition it didn’t help sleep, there was no positive impression of change and there was no significant impact upon physical or emotional functioning.

I am not an anti-marijuana crusader. I see its positive impact in treating glaucoma. I see the studies citing it is more effective to deliver by smoking it than eating it or taking it in pill form.

The review studies included all forms of administration of cannabis. I just want to make sure that when authorities legalize a substance for use in pain control it is effective and not just profitable snake oil for a strong lobby of well-healed and crafty businesspeople.