Common medications that may help prevent cancer

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published June 24, 2021

Key Takeaways

Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs have anticancer effects. Chemoprevention involves the use of medications, vitamins, or supplements to prevent cancer. The benefits of chemoprevention are especially important in those at high risk of developing cancer, including those with a strong family or personal medical history, as well as those who carry specific mutations.

The best chemoprevention agents do not cause adverse effects or impinge on quality of life. They are also inexpensive and readily available. Let’s examine some drugs that fit this bill.


According to the authors of a review published in Digestive Diseases, the long-term administration of metformin in those with type 2 diabetes was linked with lower risks of cancer and cancer death. These effects are evident with liver cancer, esophageal cancer, and gastric cancer.

The authors cited research demonstrating a 31% reduction in overall relative cancer risk in metformin users compared with patients taking other antidiabetic drugs—especially with respect to hepatocellular cancer and pancreatic cancer. 

Aspirin, NSAIDs, and COX-2 selective inhibitors

In the aforementioned review, researchers explained that many factors could prevent colorectal cancer, such as diet, lifestyle, and environmental changes. In fact, environmental changes such as the intake of anti-inflammatory drugs could decrease the burden of colorectal cancer (CRC) by up to 70%.

“There have been several proposed mechanisms by which aspirin, NSAIDs, and COXIBs reduce risk of CRC,” the authors wrote. “It seems that the most convincing hypothesis is related to the ability of these agents to inhibit COX-2, a key enzyme that promotes inflammation and cell proliferation. COX-2 is a principal enzyme that produces proinflammatory prostaglandins, which increases cellular proliferation and resistance to apoptosis and promotes angiogenesis.”  


According to the authors of a review published in Cancer Management and Research, various high-powered retrospective studies involving early-stage pancreatic cancer, as well as other types of cancers, demonstrate the chemopreventive prowess of statins.

Hydrophobic/lipophilic statins such as atorvastatin, simvastatin, lovastatin, and fluvastatin are more effective than hydrophilic statins such as pravastatin and rosuvastatin in preventing cancer due to their ability to traverse biological membranes, thus increasing access to the cell. 

Cancer cells rely on increased lipid biosynthesis for their metabolic needs and to supply cholesterol to the cell membrane, the authors noted. However, reducing cholesterol production is only a small part of the effect statins have on cancer cells. Of particular note, statins impede not only cholesterol formation but also the entire mevalonate pathway, via inhibition of HMGCoA reductase, the authors wrote.

“In addition to cholesterol, this pathway also leads to the production of isoprenoids, dolichol, ubiquinone, and isopentenyl adenine. Several members of this pathway have been shown to be essential for the survival of several cancer cell lines. Inhibiting the production of these factors leads to a decrease in cancer cell growth, protein synthesis, and cell cycle progression and to an increase in apoptosis in many cancer types. These effects appear to be independent of cholesterol, and in fact, studies have not shown a correlation between cholesterol levels and cancer progression,” they added.


The endoscopic eradication of Helicobacter pylori decreases the risk of gastric cancer from this pathogenic cause, however, the risk of metachronous, or subsequent, gastric cancer remains high. 

Results from a Japanese retrospective study involving 1,347 patients who received eradication therapy found that during a follow-up of 2.55 years, 10.39% of patients developed metachronous cancers. The investigators found that the use of antibiotics other than those for H. pylori eradication was linked to a lower risk of metachronous gastric cancer. Furthermore, probiotic drug use was also linked to a lower risk.

The authors concluded that the use of antibiotics and probiotic drugs was associated with a decreased risk of metachronous gastric cancer. “Our findings suggest that the gut microbiome is associated with metachronous gastric cancer development.”

Bottom line

When prescribing common medications, it may be useful to consider their chemotherapeutic effects in terms of cancer—especially in high-risk patients. Chemoprevention is emerging as a dynamic frontline therapy. Moving forward, leveraging the chemotherapeutic effects of common drugs could drastically reduce the global burden of cancers.

Read more on MDLinx to learn about certain cancer-fighting dietary supplements and foods that have garnered the attention of researchers. 

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