Study confirms alcohol consumption raises cancer risk

A new analysis showing a direct link between alcohol and seven types of cancer including breast, colorectal and liver cancers.

If you ever worried about whether your alcohol intake puts you at a higher risk of cancer, a new analysis showing a direct link between alcohol and seven types of cancer may have you reconsidering that next beer. The study, published in the scientific journal Addiction, reaches a sobering conclusion: There is now enough credible evidence to suggest that drinking alcoholic beverages increases the risk for many cancers, including breast, colorectal and liver cancers. The findings are the most recent in a long line of published research to link alcohol consumption and cancer.

“Even small amounts of alcohol are associated with some increase in risk of certain cancers,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “Alcohol should be used with caution.”

Even a little alcohol raises concerns

Drinking alcohol during cancer treatment, even as little as a glass of wine or two, may prove especially problematic. “It could interfere with some chemotherapy or other drugs and potentially increase the risk of some side effects, since drugs and alcohol both have to be metabolized by the liver,” says Lammersfeld. “It could also irritate tissues that might be inflamed from chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Alcohol is also a source of empty calories that could make it challenging to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. It may also lead to overeating. Since roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and this is associated with increased risk of nine cancers, there may be additional risks to moderate alcohol consumption.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists drinking alcoholic beverages as a human carcinogen. Alcohol consumption may damage the body in many ways. The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that the body metabolizes alcohol by turning it into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. According to the National Cancer Institute, alcoholic drinks may also contain an array of carcinogenic contaminants that are introduced during the fermentation and production processes. Alcohol may also raise body levels of estrogen, a hormone important to the growth and development of breast tissue. This may affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Regular, heavy alcohol use may also damage the liver, potentially raising the risk of liver cancer.

Lack of awareness

Despite the evidence, many Americans remain largely unaware of the risks that come with their favorite bottle of Chardonnay, pilsner or scotch. According to the American Institute for Cancer (AICR) Research 2015 Cancer Risk Awareness Survey Report, only 43 percent of Americans surveyed were aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. AICR researchers recommend abstaining from alcohol all together. The ACS is not as strict, recommending people who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women. “I am often asked what constitutes one or two drinks, so even the recommendation is hard for many people to translate into behavior for themselves,” says Lammersfeld.

But the study revealed some good news: Habitual drinkers who gave up alcohol may be able to reverse their risk of laryngeal, pharyngeal and liver cancer, and their risk reduced further the longer they avoided alcohol. “The bottom line is to work with your health care team to understand all your risk factors for both cancer and heart disease, so you can make the best decision about whether to imbibe and how much and how often,” says Lammersfeld.