Alcohol & Cancer: The Risks
- Actresses Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer are getting real about their alcohol consumption, something everyone should do to lower cancer risks.
- The American Cancer Society reports that alcohol consumption can increase your risk for various types of cancer.
- However, SurvivorNet experts tells us that the data on cancer and alcohol consumption is “mixed,” and they typically recommend drinking in moderation.
The actresses and longtime friends, who co-starred in the 2004 rom-com 13 Going on 30, took to Instagram on Wednesday to talk about how the Covid-19 pandemic caused them to re-evaluate their drinking habits.Read More
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“I started thinking, I’m having a little bit every night and especially during the pandemic,” Garner says, adding that once she had kids, she viewed alcohol consumption, especially wine, as a reward for a hard day’s work raising children. “It was just like that little sip that I would have, and it felt like I’d earned it and I deserved it. And then it feels like it’s become part of a code among moms: ‘Your wine, oh my gosh, you must be dying to have it!’”
“If I have half a glass every night, and if my half a glass is probably really a glass, that’s seven glasses a week, and say I have two on the weekends, then suddenly I’m close to 10 glasses of wine a week! And that raises your risk for cancer — it’s like, gosh, what is the right thing to do? What is the right amount?”
Garner is right about alcohol raising your risk of cancer. In fact, earlier this year, some new and powerful evidence was published showing that drinking alcohol significantly increases cancer risk. The new research suggests that 4% of global cancer cases in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption. Here’s the scoop:
Alcohol & Cancer: The Risks
Alcohol consumption can increase your risk for various types of cancer. When it comes to cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus, for example, alcohol “clearly” increases a person’s risk.
That being said, drinking and smoking together puts you at a higher risk for these cancers than drinking or smoking alone. But when it comes to drinking alcohol, a person’s risk of breast cancer is lurking in the shadows.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a breast oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview that every drink consumed increases a person’s cancer risk.
“What that means is a linear response to risk, meaning that each drink increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. … binge drinking, it’s not good for anybody,” she says. “And it’s also not good for a woman’s increased risk of breast cancer.”
There’s a clear link between a person’s risk of developing 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. The statement also called for reduced alcohol consumption as a way to cut people’s cancer risk.
However, many women, like Garner and Greer, recently said they had been drinking more during the Covid pandemic, and 70% weren’t aware of the resulting increased cancer risk.
“There was so much going on. I don’t know how people were coping without (alcohol), God bless them,” Greer says during the Wednesday Instagram chat.
However, even though she was drinking more during the pandemic, Greer says that she and her husband, Dean Johnsen, partook in what she calls a “Dry January” — no alcohol during the month of January. She says it wasn’t easy given pandemic stress.
“We decided to do ‘Dry January’ just to like, dry out, and that was so great,” Greer adds. “I was sleeping, I felt happy again all the time, I didn’t feel out of control, I felt really grounded.”
Can I Prevent Drinking-Related Breast Cancer Risks?
Last month, in observation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the World Health Organization released a statement advising people to cut back on their alcohol consumption to “greatly” reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
This prompted an important question: Can you prevent drinking-related breast cancer? Simply put, no. There’s no safe level of alcohol consumption, according to WHO. The risk of breast cancer increases with each unit of alcohol consumed per day.
However, Dr. Heather Yeo, a surgical oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells SurvivorNet that the data on alcohol and cancer is “mixed.”
“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 says. “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.”
Dr. Comen agrees, telling SurvivorNet during a pervious interview that she recognizes the public has been getting mixed messages about alcohol. “In some instances,” she says, “we (doctors) 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 necessarily to stop drinking, she just wants people to think about moderation and own the decisions they make. “If you want to have absolutely no risk from alcohol, then don’t drink at all,” she says. “But probably having less than four glasses a week of alcohol is probably OK.”
And Dr. Yeo has a similar message: “What I generally tell my patients is that I think that moderation (when it comes to drinking) is important.”
Contributing: Abby Seaberg