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Alcoholic Beverages and Cancer: What Is My Risk?

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Most people would agree that heavy alcohol consumption causes or contributes to a host of health problems, including cancer, but what about moderate-to-light alcohol use? Does even a small amount of alcohol put your health at risk?

The short answer is yes. Alcohol use has been linked to increased risk of several cancer types including cancers of the:

For each type of cancer, the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. For someone who is an occasional drinker, there probably won’t be much of an increased risk, depending on your genetic makeup and overall health, but moderate drinking, defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as one drink per day for a women and two drinks per day for a man, can produce adverse health risks.

The link between breast cancer and moderate alcohol use has been extensively researched and reported on. In 2009, a seven-year National Cancer Institute study of 1.2 million middle-aged women found that women who had as little as one drink per day increased their risk for not only breast, but liver, rectum, mouth, throat and esophageal cancer. This study was the first to link low-to-moderate levels of alcohol use with an increased cancer risk for other types of cancer.

“There were no minimum levels of alcohol consumption that could be considered to be without risk,” said Naomi Allen, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s researchers.

Alcohol use clearly raises the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, voicebox and esophagus. If you are a “smoke while I drink” kind of gal, your risk factor increases dramatically. When alcohol is combined with tobacco use, the risk for these cancers is substantially higher than using either alcohol or tobacco alone. Researchers believe this may be because the alcohol (Ethanol) in all alcoholic beverages can act as a solvent that helps the harmful chemicals in tobacco to leach into the cells lining the digestive tract. Alcohol may also slow down these cells’ ability to repair DNA damage caused by chemicals in tobacco.

Long term or chronic alcohol use is also linked with hepatitis (inflammation) that damages the liver. In turn, it’s this inflammation that can lead to liver cancer. While most liver damage has been associated with heavy drinking, any alcohol consumption can rob the body of essential vitamins and minerals, including A and E, some of the B vitamins, zinc, iron and folic acid, which are all hypothesized to have anticancer properties and have been observed to be in very low quantity in study animals developing cancer after being fed alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol intake is also believed to raise body levels of estrogen, a hormone important in the growth and development of breast tissue, which may explain women’s increased risk for breast cancer. Alcohol use can also damage other organs, such as the pancreas and the brain, and can raise blood pressure.

But isn’t a daily glass of wine supposed to have real health benefits, including lowering heart disease? Not according to the NCI study. Women who drank only wine had the same risk for developing cancer as those who drank beer, spirits, or a combination of alcoholic beverages. Experts don't dispute the study that shows some heart benefits, but say with other healthier ways of reducing heart disease available, any benefits just don’t outweigh the risks.

To make that point cardiologist Michael S. Lauer, MD, and cardiovascular epidemiologist Paul Sorlie, PhD, of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute noted in an editorial accompanying the NCI study last year, that the study's enormous size and strong design will strongly influence the debate about alcohol and health.

“From the standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer," they wrote. "There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe."

Lynette Summerill, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events

Add a Comment2 Comments

That's an interesting question Pat since alcohol is certainly contained in many everyday items, even if you do not drink alcohol you may be digesting it.

There have been past studies that established a link between the use of mouthwash that contains alcohol and increased rates of oral and oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the mouth and throat). More recent research, however, has cast doubt on a relationship between mouthwash and cancer.

One factor that most studies which found a link between mouthwash and cancer have not taken into account is the increased use of mouthwash by people who smoke or consume alcoholic beverages, which are known to cause cancers of the mouth and throat.

Anyone concerned with any possible harm in using alcohol-containing mouthwash, could discontinue gargling with the product and try a mouthwash that does not contain alcohol instead.

As for sauces that contain alcohol, I had always heard that the alcohol burns off, but that may not be true. This link goes into detail about that: http://www.ochef.com/165.htm. I hope this sheds some light. Thanks for your question.

April 6, 2010 - 7:06am
Expert HERWriter Guide Blogger

Lynette - Pardon the pun, but this is very sobering information. Essentially you're saying that any form of alcoholic beverage can cause a cancer risk. How far does this risk go? Should we also be avoiding such things as mouthwash containing alcohol and foods with alcohol? Just last week I saw a new pasta sauce with vodka at the grocery story and was tempted to buy it. I'd appreciate your advice. Thanks, Pat

April 2, 2010 - 5:25pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.