Can drinking cause cancer? New study makes strong link

Study warns even modest alcohol use may be unsafe

We know excessive drinking can cause health issues. However, many of us may be shocked to learn new information makes a strong link between alcohol and certain cancers. Also, the risks aren’t limited just to heavy or binge drinkers.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which represents many of the nation’s top cancer doctors, warns that even modest use of alcohol may be unsafe.

One drink a day for women and two for men nearly doubles their risk for mouth and throat cancer. That modest drinking also brings a higher risk for colorectal cancers. Heavy drinkers face significantly higher risks for cancers of the voice box and liver — and, to a lesser extent, colorectal cancers.

What do we mean by moderate versus heavy or excessive drinking? That may be harder to answer than you’d think. For one thing, the amount of alcohol in beer, wine and distilled spirits varies widely.

For another, it’s often unclear what qualifies as a “standard drink.” By most measures it means:

  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol by volume)
  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol by volume)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor (40 percent alcohol by volume).
Cancer and drinking link is a first for the ASCO

Various health organizations recommend no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one per day for women. Moreover, the key message for people who do not currently drink is: Don’t start.

An occasional cocktail or glass of wine may be unlikely to cause major trouble. That said, doctors need to have a full picture of a patient’s alcohol consumption.

“Drinking can cause cancer complications and negative treatment impacts, so it’s a crucial part of good patient care to assess alcohol use,” Dr. Azadi said.

Other research has looked at possible ties between drinking and cancer, but this statement is a first for ASCO. It is based on a review of earlier published studies.

Drinking plus smoking? Double whammy

One dire finding reported was that drinking paired with smoking creates a double health whammy. Cancer risks among those who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes are much greater than the risks seen for those who only drink alcohol or only smoke cigarettes.

Dr. Azadi said this raises special concern in Kentucky, where youth and adult smoking rates routinely lead the country.

“Smoking is incredibly damaging to your health,” he said. “Smoking and alcohol use together create a toxic recipe for cancer.”

The good news is that drinking is a modifiable risk factor. Dr. Azadi points out that while more research is needed, targeted interventions can help change or prevent this behavior.

“We’ve done a great job using awareness, education and screenings to reduce risks associated with cancers of the lung, colon and breast,” Dr. Azadi said. “The cancer community can lead the way using these same strategies and resources to help stem alcohol abuse.


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