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Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Drinking alcohol increases cancer risk whether you drink a lot or a little.

At least 4% of the world's newly diagnosed cases of esophageal, mouth, larynx, colon, rectum, liver and breast cancers in 2020, or 741,300 people, can be attributed to drinking alcohol. - A study in the July 13 edition of Lancet Oncology.

Drinking alcohol raises your risk of several types of cancer including mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, rectum, liver, pancreatic, prostate and breast cancer. All types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and hard liquor, are linked with cancer. It's really quite simple, the more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.

There are several ways in which alcohol can increase a person’s risk of cancer:

  • Alcohol can act as an irritant, especially in the mouth and throat. Cells that are damaged by the alcohol may try to repair themselves, which sometimes leads to DNA changes, which is the first step toward cancer.

  • The ethanol in alcoholic drinks breaks down to acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen, mutagen and highly toxic compound. Acetaldehyde damages DNA and prevents the cells from repairing the damage, which is the first step to how cells in our body can become cancerous.

  • Alcohol affects levels of hormones like estrogen. These hormones serve as signals that tell our cells to grow and divide. The more cells divide, the more chances there are for something to go wrong and for cancer to develop.

  • Alcohol affects the way the body can absorb several important nutrients such as vitamins A, C, D, E, and folate. Alcohol inhibits the breakdown of nutrients by decreasing secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Alcohol impairs nutrient absorption by damaging the cells lining the stomach and intestines and disabling transport of some nutrients into the blood. These nutrients are protective against cancer and poor absorption increases cancer risk.

  • Alcohol provides excess empty calories, which leads to weight gain and which in turn, also increases cancer risk.

There is no “safe” amount of alcohol that does not increase risk of at least some cancers.

  • Increased risk of breast and esophageal cancers starts at less than 1 drink per day.

  • For some cancers, such as colorectal, liver and laryngeal cancers, risk directly increases with increasing amounts of alcohol consumed.

  • An analysis of data from 53 studies found for each alcoholic drink consumed per day, the relative risk of breast cancer increased by about 7%.

  • Women who had 2-3 alcoholic drinks per day had a 20 % higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t drink alcohol.

1 drink is equal to 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

If you drink alcohol at all, drink in moderation. If you don’t drink, don’t start drinking because you have heard of health benefits such as heart health. The American Cancer Society (ACS) updated its guidelines on alcohol use, advising not to drink any alcohol, but adding that if you do, women should have no more than 1 drink per day and men should have no more than 2 drinks per day. According to the American Cancer Society, for some types of cancer such as breast cancer and liver disease, there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption. Alcohol can also worsen the side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments used during cancer treatment.

It is also important to realize that for many cancers including head and neck and esophageal cancers, stopping alcohol consumption is not associated with immediate reductions in cancer risk. The cancer risks eventually decline, although it may take years for the risks of cancer to return to those of never drinkers. Although there is some benefit for heart health associated with red wine, the risks for cancer outweigh any potential heart benefit.

When it comes to managing your cancer risk, avoiding alcohol as much as possible should be on top of your list just like not smoking.

Must Read : Smoking and Lung Cancer

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Reason to Hope

There is new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that indicates a Western-style diet that is rich in red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates is tied to higher risk of colorectal cancer through the intestinal microbiota.  Gastroenterology, 2022;DOI:10.1053/j.gastro.2022.06.054 

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