Drinking Can Cause Cancer: What You Need to Know

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Cracking open a cold one just got a little more complicated: A recent commentary published in the journal Addiction finds a concerning correlation between alcohol consumption and at least seven different types of cancer. While a relationship between drinking and liver cancer (and other liver-related health issues) has been previously suggested, Jennie Connor, Ph.D., a public health physician and epidemiologist at the University of Otago, takes a stance that there is strong evidence that alcohol may play a role in multiple other forms of the disease as well.

Published in the scientific journal Addiction this month, Connor used epidemiological records and meta-analysis of large-scale studies to determine the role alcohol plays in cancer risk. “Put very briefly, existing epidemiological evidence supports a causal association of alcohol consumption with cancers at seven sites: oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and female breast,” according to the case Connor lays out. “For all of these, there is a dose–response relationship, where there is increased cancer risk with increased average consumption.”

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Connor’s research found that an estimated 5.8 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide can be directly attributed to alcohol, although exactly how it works remains unclear. “The mechanisms by which alcohol causes cancer are not well understood, but are thought to depend upon the target organ,” says Connor, in her commentary. “For cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and liver, there is strong evidence that DNA damage is due to acetaldehyde, the carcinogenic metabolite of ethanol oxidation.” When you drink, your liver breaks down the alcohol into acetaldehyde (one reason heavy drinkers may be susceptible to liver cancer), but research now shows that high amounts of the compound can be found in the saliva as well, meaning it comes in contact with the mouth and throat, increasing the risk of DNA damage that could lead to cancer-causing mutations.

While heavier drinkers are at greater risk than moderate ones, any alcohol consumption increases the odds of cancer, according to the claims in Connor's commentary. What’s more, the risk remains the same whether you are imbibing beer, wine, or whiskey. “There does not appear to be any variation by beverage type,” adds Connor, nor is it particularly significant whether you consume all your alcohol during one Friday night bender, versus a drink or two spread out on various days during the week.

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One piece of good news: There is some evidence that you can reverse course simply by not drinking. In some cases, the risk of cancer in former drinkers who went on the wagon dropped to the same level as those who never drank after a 20-year period. The research is provocative, and more needs to be done to confirm the findings. In the meantime, less is more when it comes to booze. Save your drinking for special occasions and avoid alcohol while smoking — a combination researchers believe can exacerbate the negative health effects.

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