Common Painkillers May Reduce Risk of Some Skin Cancers, Including Melanoma

Can simple over the counter drugs ward off skin cancer?  A new study hints of the possibility that the use of NSAID or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin can actually protect against certain types of skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease.

The new study hints at a possible link between NSAID use and skin cancer risk. It does not prove that a link exists or speak to how these medications may stave off skin cancer risk. Other studies have produced conflicting results. The findings appear online in the journal Cancer.

Researchers led by Sigrun Alba Johannesdottir of Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark compared use of prescription NSAIDs among people with and without the three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma.  Those who filled more than two NSAID prescriptions from 1991 through 2009 were 15% less likely to develop squamous cell skin cancer and 13% were found less likely to develop melanoma than those who filled two or fewer NSAID prescriptions during the study period. It should be noted that researchers only looked at prescription NSAIDs, not the over-the-counter forms.

The study, appearing online in the Journal of Cancer, has had conflicting results, and does not definitively prove the link exists, or addresses how these medications may work as a protection against skin cancer.

No Safe Way to Tan

The studies found that the use of NSAIDs did not affect overall risk for developing basal cell skin cancer, but with that said, they did reduce risk of basal cell skin cancer in body parts other than the head and neck that were not regularly exposed to the sun.

“NSAIDs help lower inflammation in the body and reduce expression of COX-2, an enzyme involved in growth of cancers,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, dermatologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City who found that the results of the study did make sense. In fact, a topical NSAID, Solaraze Gel (diclofenac), is approved for pre-cancerous skin damage known as actinic keratoses.

Don’t let these possible findings give the impression that the use of NSAIDs can replace skin cancer prevention measures such as sunscreens and wearing sun-protective clothing, warns Dr. Zeichnew.   “The positive results from this study will hopefully pave the way for future research on NSAIDs and other ways to treat and prevent skin cancer,” he says.


Adding that there is no safe way to tan, Dr. Zeichnew says, “The only safe tan is the one you get from bottle of self-tanning cream.”  Best of all, he adds, “Iif you protect yourself from the sun, you won’t need any preventive treatments.”

Julie Russak, MD, a dermatologist in New York City, agrees.  NSAIDs are known to help treat painful sunburns, she says,  but they do confer their share of risks when used for long periods of time, including bleeding and heart risks.  “Sunburns cause inflammation that may lead to the development of skin cancer,” she says. “It is a parallel pathway.”

The best way to reduce skin cancer risk is to use sunscreen and avoid a burn, and schedule regular checkups with your doctor.  “Early detection can also save lives,” Dr. Russak notes, “See a doctor once a year for a skin exam, and if you notice any change in your moles.”

Source: WebMD Health News May 2012

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