For many people, alcohol has always been used as an escape from the pain and woes of life and love. However, with each passing year, the term double-edged sword seems to fit alcohol more perfectly. While it surely offers temporary relief and relaxation when drunk in moderation in the company of family and friends, it can cause health problems when drunk in excess and on a regular basis. In fact, heavy alcohol drinking can cause a myriad of health conditions. One of the most alarming effects of alcohol is that it can raise the risk of developing many types of cancer. The cancer risk that alcohol consumption brings to the table is just too high to be set aside.
Drinking alcohol is a known and recognized cause of the following cancers:
- Colon and Rectum
Evidence Suggests that Alcohol Drinking Does Cause Cancer
Based on several extensive reviews of research studies, there is a strong scientific consensus with regards to the connection between alcohol consumption and several types of cancer. In fact, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services has indicated in the Report on Carcinogens that drinking alcoholic beverages is considered as human carcinogen.
Research evidence indicates 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. It causes approximately 20,000 cancer-associated deaths in the United States every year. The problem, however, that we have is that the relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians.
Assessing the Link Between Cancer and Alcohol Use
Clear patterns have emerged between alcohol consumption and the development of the following types of cancer:
- Head and neck cancer – Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity (excluding the lips), pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box). People who consume 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 or more drinks per day) have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing these cancers than nondrinkers. Moreover, the risks of these cancers are substantially higher among persons who consume this amount of alcohol and also use tobacco.
- Esophageal Cancer – Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for a particular type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. In addition, people who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have been found to have substantially increased risks of alcohol-related esophageal squamous cell carcinoma
- Breast Cancer – More than 100 epidemiologic studies have looked at the association between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer in women. These studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake. A meta-analysis of 53 of these studies (which included a total of 58,000 women with breast cancer) showed that women who drank more than 45 grams of alcohol per day (approximately three drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer as nondrinkers (a modestly increased risk) (7). The risk of breast cancer was higher across all levels of alcohol intake: for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day (slightly less than one drink), researchers observed a small (7 percent) increase in the risk of breast cancer.
- Liver Cancer – Alcohol consumption is an independent risk factor for, and a primary cause of, liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) (6). (Chronic infection with hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus are the other major causes of liver cancer.)
- Colorectal Cancer – Alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. A meta-analysis of 57 cohort and case-control studies that examined the association between alcohol consumption and colorectal cancer risk showed that people who regularly drank 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing colorectal cancer as nondrinkers or occasional drinkers (9). For every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day, there was a small (7 percent) increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.
Research on Alcohol Consumption and Other Cancers
Numerous studies have examined the association between alcohol consumption and the risk of other cancers, including cancers of the pancreas, ovary, prostate, stomach, uterus, and bladder. For these cancers, either no association with alcohol use has been found or the evidence for an association is inconsistent.