It’s a topic that never ceases to create controversy, and one we have written about extensively. I myself have shared some of my own experiences with overcoming addiction to this substance, and I know firsthand that alcohol is one of those things in life that we love to turn a blind eye to. We are unwilling to face the fact that it carries many health risks because we enjoy it so much. Yet, though ignorance might be bliss, i t won’t protect our bodies from harm.
What I find particularly fascinating is that even many self-proclaimed health nuts, who are very careful to avoid chemicals, pesticides, preservatives, processed foods, GMOs, etc. still drink alcohol, even though it is a known carcinogen. What I find even more interesting is the lack of knowledge around the fact that alcohol is a known carcinogen in the first place. Did you know? This is something that is hardly ever discussed or written about, and we certainly don’t see cancer warnings on alcohol bottles, so how did alcohol slip under the radar when it comes to clean eating and living a healthy lifestyle?
Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which represents many top cancer doctors of the nation, has been trying to raise awareness about the direct ties between cancer and alcohol. In a statement published last week in the Journal of Clinical Oncolog, they cite evidence that even light drinking can raise a woman’s risk of developing both breast and esophageal cancer.
Of course, heavy drinkers face a much higher risk of developing colorectal cancer and cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, and liver, warns the group.
Another new study published in the journal Addiction has found “strong evidence” that alcohol causes cancer in several different places within the body, “and probably others” as well. The types of confirmed cancers listed in the study include liver, colon, rectum, female breast, larynx (throat organ), orolynx (behind the mouth), and esophagus.
The study emphasizes how firmly this link has been established already:
In the last decade there has been a proliferation of research literature, reviews and comment on the association of alcohol consumption with cancer. In some parts of the world the scientific consensus that alcohol causes cancer has already led to more explicit consideration of cancer risk in policy-making, and programmes to increase public knowledge of the risks.
The researchers also point out that current estimates of alcohol-attributable cancers make up 5.8 % of all cancer deaths worldwide. This may seem like a small sum until you consider the sheer number of people who die from cancer each year. Now think about all of the people who will have some form of cancer during their lifetime that don’t die. How many of those could be alcohol-induced?
For the study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of every major study done over the last decade on alcohol and cancer. The drew upon research from major institutions like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, as well as independent studies.
Jennie Conor, lead researcher of the study and the chair in preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago, explained that while many of these studies drew links between alcohol and cancer, she and her team wanted to see if there was definitive causal link between the two.
Should I Give Up Alcohol Completely?
“The message is not, ‘Don’t drink.’ It’s, ‘If you want to reduce your cancer risk, drink less. And if you don’t drink, don’t start,’” said Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the ASCO statement. “It’s different than tobacco where we say, ‘Never smoke. Don’t start.’ This is a little more subtle.”
So no, you don’t have to give up alcohol completely, but realistically it’s not good for you nor your health, so it’s good to reflect on why you do it to begin with.
Casual, heavy, and problem drinking have all been on the rise in the United States and affect people of all races, genders, and socioeconomic standings.
So, Why Isn’t This Common Knowledge?
Very few adults, when asked, identify alcohol consumption as a risk factor for cancer, even though the vast majority of people are familiar with other cancer risk factors such as smoking tobacco and prolonged sun exposure. A recent study conducted by ASCO found that out of 4,016 adults, fewer than one in three identified alcohol as a risk factor. (Most of those surveyed also failed to mention obesity as a risk factor.)
This group of doctors is now calling for new public health initiatives to cut back alcohol consumption and raise awareness about its effects on health. They are advocating to raise taxes and establish advertising regulations to prevent ads from indirectly targeting minors, similar to the ban on alcohol advertising in New York City’s subways and busses expected to go into effect in January. The group also opposes any form of “pink washing,” the term given to anything using the breast cancer ribbon to enhance sales, whether that item is a known carcinogen or not.
ASCO researchers also reviewed many studies on cancer and alcohol and determined that 5.5% of all new cancers and 5.8% of all cancer deaths worldwide can be attributed to alcohol.
How Much Is Too Much?
Just one alcoholic drink a day can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a report released last May by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. This was also cited by the ASCO report, which analyzed 119 studies that carried data on 12 million women and over 250,000 cases of breast cancer. They concluded there was strong evidence to support the notion that alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing both pre- and postmenopausal cancer. According to the research, even drinking a small glass of wine or beer every day, the equivalent of about 10 grams of alcohol, can increase premenopausal breast cancer risk by 5% and postmenopausal risk by an alarming 9%.
“The more you drink, the higher the risk,” said Dr. Clifford A. Hudis, the chief executive of ASCO. “It’s a pretty linear dose-response.”
Those who drink moderately, as defined by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) as one drink per day for women and two for men, are nearly doubling their risk of developing mouth and throat cancer and are more than doubling their risk of developing carcinoma of the esophagus compared to non-drinkers. So, it really doesn’t take much.
Many of us are doing what we can to maintain good health — not smoking, not eating processed meats, and getting plenty of exercise — and that’s wonderful to see. However, ignoring the risk of alcohol doesn’t make them go away. By being aware, we can make better choices for ourselves and for our health. With this information finally coming to the surface, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more warnings about alcohol consumption in the future and hopefully new regulations on its promotion, too.