Skin Cancer Prevention and Your Medicine Cabinet

Health Professional

I want to talk about how several commonly used medicines may reduce the incidence of cancer, with specific focus on skin cancer. Many times, we hear news stories how certain foods we eat or medicines we take may cause cancer, there are several medicines that actually may help prevent skin cancer. So you may be able to lower your cholesterol and prevent a heart attack with certain pills with the unexpected benefit of also decreasing any risk of having skin cancer.

The first group of medicine I want to talk about is the "statin" group. These pills (lovastatin, simvastatin, atorvastatin, etc.) work by blocking a protein needed for cholesterol synthesis in the body so they decrease blood cholesterol levels with the hope of preventing heart disease. In addition, they have functions that may help control tumor initiation, tumor growth and metastasis. Although clinical trials in the past have been inconsistent in showing that statins can decrease skin cancer rates, several large heart studies have suggested that those people taking "statins" have a lower incidence of skin cancer.

The National Cancer Institute had begun a trial to see if these statins can prevent the progression of an atypical mole into melanoma. The other cancer that statins may affect are tumors of the gastro-intestinal tract. I must stress that all the data coming from recently published studies are inconsistent, with several showing no effect of statins while others have showed decreased thickness of melanoma in those taking statins. These studies are very complicated because so many factors will play into skin cancer development. Also, the dose needed to decrease cholesterol may not be the same dose needed to prevent skin cancer. Clearly, further research will be needed to clarify these issues but the known information shows some promise.

Another commonly used medicine that may help prevent skin cancer (as well as others) is aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAIDs are known to play a role in cancer prevention, and specifically we use a topical form (called solaraze gel) to help prevent actinic keratoses (precancers) from developing into squamous cell carcinoma. A preliminary study from Australia several years ago showed that those taking aspirin daily did indeed have fewer squamous cell carcinomas but there was no effect on other types of skin cancer. A large study published earlier this summer showed no effect of NSAID use on the incidence or prognosis of melanoma. However, further research is needed as it is clear that aspirin and other similar medicines have anticancer effects. Again, many factors can lead to cancer so a certain dose of aspirin in a certain population may really help prevent skin cancer.

Aspirin and statins may just be the tip of the iceberg of potential cancer treatments and preventions to which we already have easy access. As people take more medicines for longer amounts of time, trends will be discovered and then specifically investigated. Some of the most important drug treatment plans are discovered coincidentally. Of course, many medicines have side effects that will outweigh the benefits but we can only hope that cancer prevention is as easy as taking an aspirin every day