Alcohol and Cancer
- Cancer risk is tied to alcohol consumption in a big way, according to a major new study.
- Oncologists say moderate alcohol consumption is an answer for people looking to balance cancer risk with the enjoyment they get from drinking.
- A SurvivorNet survey found that many women have been drinking more during the pandemic, and 70% weren’t aware of the resulting increased cancer risk.
According to the study published in The Lancet Oncology, more than 700,000 new cases of cancer worldwide in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption.Read More
In the study, researchers found levels of alcohol intake per person, per country using 2010 data from the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health while assuming a 10-year latency period between alcohol consumption and cancer development. Then they considered relative risk estimates and the number of new cancer cases in 2020 to estimate the number of alcohol-associated cancers in each country.
Based on the findings, men accounted for 568,700 alcohol-attributable cancer cases, or about three-quarters of the total. The highest percentage of the alcohol-attributable cancers, 46.7%, came from heavy drinkers (the equivalent of >6 drinks). This equaled out to about 346,400 cases. Then the numbers decreased from there for risky and moderate drinkers, with risky drinkers (the equivalent of 2-6 drinks) representing 291,800 cancer cases, or 39.4% of the total, and moderate drinkers (the equivalent of 1-2 drinks) representing 103,100 cases, or 13.9%. Even drinking 10 grams daily (less than one drink) contributed 41,300 new cases of cancer in 2020, according to their study.
“We estimate that light to moderate drinking of the equivalent of around one or two alcoholic drinks per day was accountable for more than 100,000 cases of cancer in 2020,” the researchers explained in the published study.
Linking Alcohol Consumption to Specific Cancers
The majority of the cases attributed to alcohol consumption (189,000 cases) were esophageal cancer cases. The second highest was liver cancer (154,000), and the third highest was breast (98,300).
According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol consumption can increase your risk for many different types of cancer. Considering cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus, for example, alcohol “clearly” increases risk. That being said, the ACS notes that drinking and smoking together puts you at a much higher risk for these cancers than drinking or smoking alone.
“This might be because alcohol can help harmful chemicals in tobacco get inside the cells that line the mouth, throat, and esophagus,” the ACS website states. “Alcohol may also limit how these cells can repair damage to their DNA caused by the chemicals in tobacco.”
When it comes to liver cancer, “long-term alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk.” When you regularly drink a lot of alcohol, liver damage can occur and lead to inflammation and scarring – a possible explanation for the increased risk.
We also know there’s a clear link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption. In November 2017, the American Society of Clinical Oncology published a statement citing evidence that links alcohol to multiple cancers and calling for reduced alcohol consumption as a way to cut people’s cancer risk. But many women recently said they had been drinking more during the pandemic, and 70 percent weren’t aware of the resulting increased cancer risk, according to SurvivorNet survey in February.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said that every drink consumed increases cancer risk.
“What that means is a linear response to risk, meaning that each drink increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. So binge drinking, it’s not good for anybody,” she said. “And it’s also not good for a woman’s increased risk of breast cancer.”
For colon and rectal cancer, the ACS reports that alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum with stronger evidence for this in men than in women, though studies have found the link in both sexes.
Dr. Heather Yeo, a colorectal cancer surgeon at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said she believes alcohol increases risk for certain cancers but acknowledged that the data was mixed, especially for colon cancer.
“I do think that high levels of alcohol certainly predispose to a certain number of cancers, including pancreatic and liver cancer, and may predispose to colon cancer,” she said. “But there’s also some data that shows that low levels of alcohol, or a glass of wine here and there, may actually lower your risk of colon cancer.”
Perhaps ‘In Moderation’ Is the Motto
It’s important to note that alcohol consumption may increase the risk of developing these cancers, but it doesn’t necessarily cause these cancers. That being said, it’s hard to know what to do if you’re concerned about your alcohol intake increasing your risk of various cancers.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen acknowledges the mixed messages coming from the healthcare community regarding alcohol consumption.
“I think we’ve probably been getting the public mixed messages about alcohol,” Dr. Comen said. “In some instances, we say that drinking wine might be good for the heart, and we don’t necessarily offer great specific guidelines about how much alcohol is safe to drink.”
Dr. Comen’s advice isn’t to necessarily stop drinking altogether. She just wants people to think about moderation and own the decisions they make.
“Patients ask me this all the time, ‘Well, how much can I drink?'” she said. “If you want to have absolutely no risk from alcohol, then don’t drink at all. But probably having less than four glasses a week of alcohol is probably OK.”
Dr. Heather Yeo also stressed the importance of moderation.
“For women, anything over a half a glass or a glass a day is probably not helping your overall health,” Dr. Yeo said. “For men, they can probably go one to two glasses before they start seeing health effects.”