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World Cancer Day: Alcohol is a carcinogen

Research physicians determine "When it comes to cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe."
Research physicians determine "When it comes to cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe."
UICC

The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) uses Feb. 4 as World Cancer Day to focus on debunking the myths about the world's leading killer. For 2014, the organization emphasizes the fifth point in their World Cancer Declaration: "Reduce stigma and dispel myths about cancer." One of many myths is that drinking alcohol is safe.

In 1987, the first links between cancer and alcohol were determined. According to advocacy group Drink Wise, today only 36 percent of adults are aware that alcohol is a carcinogen.

Alcohol is implicated in several types of cancer. For example, one out of eight women will have an encounter with breast cancer and alcohol use is the ONLY dietary factor increasing the likelihood of getting breast cancer.

Breast cancer risks increase 10 percent for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed daily. That’s about one drink. Women who consumed even “modest” alcohol (equivalent to 3-6 glasses of wine per week) were linked with a 15 percent increase of developing the disease. Researchers also found that the increased risk of breast cancer for those who drank at least 30 grams of alcohol per day on average (at least two drinks daily) was 51 percent higher compared to women who never drank alcohol.

In addition, when the researchers looked at alcohol consumption levels between the ages 18 to 40 and after the age of 40, they discovered that both were strongly linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. The connection with alcohol consumption still remained even after controlling, reducing or quitting alcohol consumption after the age of 40.

People with the disease of alcoholism and “social” drinkers share the same cancer risk for several other types of cancer. The risk goes up with the quantity of alcohol. In 2012 research published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research identified “significantly” higher risks for cancers of the pharynx, oral cavity and larynx and higher rates for cancers of the esophagus and rectum. “Alcohol’s role as a dietary carcinogen emerged quite clearly,” said the lead researcher. An older study put the numbers at an estimated 75 percent of esophageal cancers in the U.S. are attributable to chronic, excessive alcohol consumption and nearly 50 percent of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx are associated with heavy drinking.

According to Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, alcohol misuse results in abnormalities in the way the body processes nutrients and may subsequently promote certain types of cancer later in life. Alcoholism also has been associated with suppression of the immune system. Immune suppression makes you more susceptible to various infectious diseases and, theoretically, to cancer. (from Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud)

Even moderate alcohol use may substantially increase the risk of dying from cancer, according to a new study published in Feb. 2012 in the American Journal of Public Health. Alcohol use accounts for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths annually, according to the study. “Most deaths seemed to occur among people who consumed more than three alcoholic drinks a day, but those who consumed 1.5 beverages daily may account for up to one-third of those deaths,” the researchers concluded. Dr. Timothy Naimi, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a Boston University release. "Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight."

The study (see related examiner.com article) determined that alcohol-related cancer death took away an average of 18 potential years from a person's life. Naimi said. “When it comes to cancer, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption."