What Do We Know About Alcohol & Cancer Risk?
- Legendary singer Frank Sinatra is remembered for saying “alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy.” It appears the music icon may have been aware that too much alcohol isn’t good for one’s health.
- Perhaps Sinatra would have gone about his drinking habits differently if the newly released guidance by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction had been something of the past.
- In January 2023, Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines were updated for the first time since 2011, revealing that “each additional standard drink radically increases the risk of alcohol-related consequences.”
- Alcohol use has been linked with cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, colon and rectum and breast, according to the American Cancer Society.
However, new Canadian guidance is now recommending that people lessen their alcohol consumption for better health—something Ol’ Blue Eyes would likely have had a hard time comprehending as drinking alcohol was part of his lifestyle, he even wrote about it in his music.Read More
Perhaps Sinatra would have gone about his drinking habits differently if the newly released guidance had been something of the past.
In January 2023, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction updated the country’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines for the first time since 2011.
According to the new guidelines, the following shows how much even adding one standard alcoholic beverage in a week can increase health risks:
- 0 standard alcoholic drinks: no risk (no alcohol has benefits like better health and improved sleep)
- 1-2: standard alcoholic drinks: low risk
- 3-6 standard alcoholic drinks: moderate risk (the risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer, increases with this amount of drinks)
- 7 or more standard alcoholic drinks: increasingly high risk (the risk of heart disease or stroke increases significantly when drinking alcohol in this amount)
“Each additional standard drink radically increases the risk of alcohol-related consequences,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines also note that “consuming more than two standard drinks per occasion is associated with an increased risk of harms to self and others, including injuries and violence.”
Additionally, there is no known safe amount of alcohol use for pregnant women or those trying to get pregnant. It is also best to avoid drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.
“No matter where you are on the continuum, for your health, less alcohol is better,” the guidelines conclude.
RELATED: Warning to Drinkers: ‘Strong Link’ Found Between Alcohol and Deadly Cancers
Adam Sherk, PhD, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and part of the scientific expert panel that contributed to the updated guidelines, spoke with Medscape Medical News following the news about Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines.
“Alcohol is more harmful than was previously thought and is a key component of the health of your patients,” he told the medical news outlet. “Display and discuss the new guidance with your patients with the main message that drinking less is better.”
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
If you’re thinking about cutting back on your alcohol consumption you should also take the effects alcohol can have on your cancer risk into consideration.
According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol consumption can increase your risk for many different types of cancer. With 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.
RELATED: 6 Tips to Help You Avoid Alcohol When Faced With Stress of a Cancer Diagnosis
“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 a SurvivorNet survey in February 2021.
Alcohol Can Increase the Risk of Developing Breast Cancer
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Elizabeth Comen, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a SurvivorNet medical advisor, said every drink consumed increased 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.”
The ACS also 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.
Does Alcohol Impact the Risks for Colon and Other Cancers?
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.”
So, What Should You Do?
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.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff
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