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Statins and Cancer

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Updated April 12, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The statin drugs, used for reducing cholesterol levels and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world. So it should not be surprising to hear that they are also among the most intensely studied drugs in the world. As a result of all the studies that have been performed with statins, we now know that the effects of statins go far beyond merely cholesterol-lowering. For instance, statins reduce inflammation, abnormal blood clotting, and blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). They stabilize and promote shrinking of plaques, improve overall vascular function, and can reduce dangerous cardiac arrhythmias. Many believe that these non-cholesterol effects may be largely responsible for the unique effectiveness of statins (as opposed to most other cholesterol-lowering drugs) in reducing cardiovascular risk. One of the more intriguing suggestions made about the statins is that they may reduce the risk or the severity of cancer. Over the past decade, numerous studies have been published that have reported that people taking statins may have a lower risk of cancer. On the other hand, many other studies have shown no cancer-reducing benefit at all with statins. Because so many studies have yielded such differing results, there is a lot of uncertainty about the possible effect of statins on the risk of cancer.

Here is a summary of what the experts believe today about statins and cancer.

Do Statins Affect The Overall Risk of Cancer?

At least two large meta-analyses have now been conducted on the question of statins and the risk of cancer, which included hundreds of thousands of patients taking statins. Both of these analyses concluded that there is no measurable effect of statins on either the risk of developing cancer, or the risk of dying from cancer. So overall, statins do not appear to either decrease or increase the incidence or severity of cancer.

Is There A Statin Effect On Particular Types of Cancer?

While the overall cancer risk does not appear to be affected by statin drugs, some studies have suggested that statins may reduce the risk of certain specific types of cancer, in particular, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and lung cancer.

Statins and Prostate Cancer

While several observational studies have suggested that statins may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, a large meta-analysis found no such risk reduction in the overall incidence of this cancer. However, that same meta-analysis showed that statins were associated with a significant reduction in developing advanced prostate cancer.

So while statins do not lower the overall risk of prostate cancer, they may lower the risk of the more lethal varieties of prostate cancer.

Statins and Breast Cancer

Studies evaluating the incidence of breast cancer among women taking statins have given conflicting results. Some studies have shown a reduction in breast cancer, while others have not. A large meta-analysis conducted to try to sort out the conflicting studies found no correlation between statin usage and the incidence of breast cancer.

But a recent report (which is available only in abstract form) from the Women's Health Initiative study claims to have found a marginal reduction in invasive breast cancer among women taking simvastatin (but not in women taking other types of statins). Overall, most experts currently find no compelling evidence that statins reduce the incidence of breast cancer.

Statins and Colon Cancer

Three large studies have shown at least a modest reduction in the risk of colon cancer in patients taking statins. Several other studies, however, have shown no reduction in colon cancer with statins. Given these conflicting results, experts are reluctant to say that statins have any beneficial effect on colon cancer.

Statins and Liver Cancer

A large study from China showed a significant reduction in liver cancer among patients taking statins. Similarly, a reduction in liver cancer with statin usage was reported in a large meta-analysis that included 1.6 million patients.

The evidence suggesting that statins may reduce the risk of liver cancer appears at this time to be the most convincing of all the evidence regarding the effect of statins on cancer.

Statins and Lung Cancer

A large case-controlled study which included almost 500,000 patients from the VA Health Care System reported that patients taking statins for at least six months had a 55% reduction in the incidence of lung cancer. While this result seems impressive, several experts have noted that a benefit of this magnitude ought to have been detected in one or more of the large meta-analyses — and none has. So any potential benefit of statins with regard to lung cancer remains highly questionable.

Summary

Whether, and to what degree, statins may protect against cancer remains unproven. It appears unlikely that statins actually reduce the overall risk of cancer; in fact, it's more likely that statins may lower the risk of certain types of cancer, though (with the possible exception of liver cancer) even this possibility remains questionable. Experts at this time do not recommend that statins be prescribed to anyone for the purpose of cancer prevention.

On the other hand, if your doctor is prescribing a statin drug to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, you may be comforted in knowing that there is virtually no evidence that statins increase your risk of cancer, and that, if anything, statins may reduce your chances of getting some types of cancer.

Sources

Cholesterol Treatment Trialists' (CTT) Collaboration, Emberson JR, Kearney PM, et al. Lack of effect of lowering LDL cholesterol on cancer: meta-analysis of individual data from 175,000 people in 27 randomised trials of statin therapy. PLoS One 2012; 7:e29849.

Bonovas S, Filioussi K, Sitaras NM. Statin use and the risk of prostate cancer: A metaanalysis of 6 randomized clinical trials and 13 observational studies. Int J Cancer 2008; 123:899.

P Desai, A Jay, C Wu, et al. Statins and breast cancer risk: A follow-up analysis of the Women's Health Initiative Cohort. Cancer Res 2012;72(24 Suppl):Abstract nr PD03-09.

Undela K, Srikanth V, Bansal D. Statin use and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2012 Aug;135(1):261-9. doi: 10.1007/s10549-012-2154-x. Epub 2012 Jul 18

Poynter JN, Gruber SB, Higgins PD, et al. Statins and the risk of colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 2005; 352:2184.

Singh S, Singh PP, Singh AG, et al. Statins Are Associated With a Reduced Risk of Hepatocellular Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Gastroenterology 2012.

Khurana V, Bejjanki HR, Caldito G, et al. Statins reduce the risk of lung cancer in humans: a large case-control study of US veterans. Chest. 2007;131(5):1282.

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