Alcohol and Its Link to Cancer

Categories: Cancer Risk

April 25, 2017

It's fairly common knowledge that an occasional glass of red wine has been shown to boost heart health. Even beer has been linked to "some benefit against cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. And, at least one study from by the European Journal of Cancer Prevention suggests alcohol could reduce the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma.

Before you pop a cork or tab and say, "Cheers, I'll drink to that!" there are risks you should be aware of. A growing body of evidence suggests a worrisome link between alcohol consumption and certain types of cancers.

Alcohol: A "Known Human Carcinogen"

Cancer occurs when changes occur to a cell's DNA. Some changes occur as a result of genetic factors, but other changes occur after the body is exposed to various substances that can contribute to the development of cancer. These are called carcinogens. They don't always cause cancer, but make it easier for cancer to develop over time.  For example, it's common knowledge that tobacco smoke is a carcinogen.  Not every smoker will develop cancer but they are all at a higher risk after exposure to the chemicals in cigarettes.

If you drink alcohol it’s not a certainty that you'll develop cancer. But the National Cancer Institute states there is evidence that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer.

The More Alcohol You Drink, The Higher Your Risks May Be

According to the National Cancer Institute, alcohol is known to cause the following types of cancer according to a widely reported study published in the journal Addiction in 2016.

  • Breast cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Voice box (larynx) cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colon and rectal cancers

Studies Show Sobering Conclusions

One study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 concluded that alcohol consumption resulted in 3.7 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States. For women, the primary alcohol-related cancer resulting in death was breast cancer and in men, it was esophageal cancer or upper airway cancer. The study's authors went on to conclude that "reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy."

Another study performed on behalf of the Komen Foundation looked at nearly 100 breast cancer patients and concluded that consuming one or more alcoholic beverages per day increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Alcohol drinkers were 11% more likely to develop breast cancer than non-drinkers.

What is Considered Safe Alcohol Use?

The American Cancer Society recommends drinking no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men and no more than one per day for women.  This is in line with the amounts of alcohol shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.  

The drink limit is lower for women because they typically have smaller bodies that tend to break down alcohol more slowly. The ACS does not recommend saving your week’s worth of drinks for one day of the week.

If you or a loved one is struggling to control the amount of alcohol being consumed each day it may be best to seek assistance through a local organization. Here is a recent list of resources published for the Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington areas.