This story presents only one view of a study of the effect of daily low-dose aspirin on cancer death rates: over-the-top enthusiasm and a single-minded group of experts. It leads with a suggestion that everyone over 40 should rely on aspirin to reduce their risk of dying from cancer and proceeds to pump up the potential benefits while almost sneering at any concerns about either the risk of bleeding caused by aspirin or questions about the way researchers took data collected from heart disease trials in order to reach conclusions about effects on cancer.
Cancer prevention has taken a back seat to high tech treatments in the media. So, a story that highlights a potential low tech method of reducing cancer risk is both important and unusual. Aspirin has been one such low tech option that has been examined over the past several years with studies producing conflicting results. This sort of unbalanced report may well prompt some readers to begin taking aspirin daily in hopes of preventing cancer, although even the authors of this study note that more research is required.
Although the story does not discuss costs, the price of aspirin is low and well-known.
The story reports only the relative reductions in cancer deaths rates and not the absolute reductions. Relative rates generally appear to magnify the differences. For example the story referred to reductions in cancer death rates of 21 percent in the short run and 34 percent after five years. The story did not report that when you look at the absolute rates of cancer deaths, the largest difference observed was 7 percent.
The story dismisses concerns about ulcers and other bleeding caused by aspirin. Indeed, the last sentence of the story in fact says the risk is trivial.
Based on the description in this story, readers would likely believe that the data came from experiments designed to examine the effects of aspirin on cancer rates when actually the data was taken from heart disease trials. The story fails to address the methodological concerns of taking data collected to look at one health threat (heart disease) in order to draw conclusions about a completely different category of disease (cancer.) The story also leaves out other questions about the study population, including the very low numbers of women, a notable omission given that the Women’s Health Study failed to show any cancer-related benefit to regular use of low-dose aspirin.
The story highlights suggestions that everyone over 40 begin taking aspirin in order to reduce the risk of many types of cancer, while minimizing concerns about the limitations of this study and the risks associated with aspirin. The voices included in this story form a cheering section for the universal use of aspirin.
Technically, this story meets a strict interpretation of the first part of this criterion by including independent experts, even as it grossly violates the spirit. All of the comments are from cheerleaders for aspirin. Experts with a different perspective are left out.
The story also fails to report the consulting relationships that some of the study authors have had with pharmaceutical companies.
The story presents daily low-dose aspirin as the way to go… without any serious consideration of alternatives available to people concerned about their risk of dying from cancer.
The story notes that aspirin is widely used to relieve pain and reduce fever. Oddly, it does not highlight the use of aspirin by certain people to reduce their risk of heart attacks even though it was trials looking at those effects that provided the data for this analysis. While this story technically meets this criterion because aspirin is indeed available on store shelves and home medicine cabinets, the drug is specifically intended for use as an analgesic and, in certain individuals, to reduce the risk of certain heart-related problems; notwithstanding this one study, aspirin is not widely recognized or officially approved as a cancer prevention agent.
The story fails to distinguish between previous reports (that were based on either observational studies of people or experiments in animals) and this report that uses data from human experiments on heart disease prevention, so it is not clear to readers what is new about this latest report.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.