Caring Currents

An Unpopular Idea: Worried About Cancer? Cut Back on Drinking

Last updated:

September 03, 2008
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If you're worried about cancer -- either for yourself or your family -- you might want to cut back on drinking, or suggest that loved ones do so. That's the conclusion of researchers across the country and in the UK -- and of the U.S. government, which now lists alcohol as a known carcinogen.Yet for some reason, this message just isn't getting the attention you'd think it would get, given what the studies show.

Consider These Statistics:

  • Women who drink even a small amount of alcohol daily -- such as half a glass of wine -- increase their risk of breast cancer by 10 percent; women who drink three drinks a day increase their risk by 30 to 40 percent.
  • Drinking two or more drinks a day increases the risk of upper digestive tract cancers (mouth, larynx, esophagus) by 50 to 75 percent.
  • The risk of liver cancer is ten times greater in those who drink and smoke.

I don't know why we're not talking more about the alcohol-cancer connection. When my father was dying of esophageal cancer -- a type of cancer closely linked to alcohol consumption -- I don't remember the doctor asking my dad about drinking, or even mentioning the subject. My dad was not an alcoholic -- far from it. (I should know, as my mother was.) But he loved his evening glass or two of red wine, even going so far to make his own wine as a hobby. It makes me sad to think that a warning about this connection might have kept him with us longer.

I live in Marin County, California, known sarcastically as the breast cancer capital of the country because of the frighteningly high rate of breast cancer here. Yet I didn't know until recently about research conducted at  the University of San Francisco three years ago showing that the high breast cancer rate in Marin was likely due to alcohol consumption. Women with breast cancer were surveyed and found to be twice as likely to have more than two drinks a day as the women in a comparative group surveyed. I  don't drink much, but if I did, it might have been nice to hear about  this from my doctor.

How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Drinking seems to contribute to different types of cancer in different ways. Alcohol:

  1. Increases the risk of breast cancer by increasing levels of estrogen, insulin, and other hormones that fuel cancer
  2. Is metabolized into a chemical called acetaldehyde, also known as the "hangover chemical," which leads to cancer both by damaging DNA and by  preventing cells from repairing the damage.
  3. Increases esophageal and mouth cancer by damaging sensitive tissues. (It also increases the risk from smoking by the same route.)
  4. Damages the liver, making it more vulnerable to liver cancer.

For some reason, this news is getting out much more effectively in England than it is here in the States, where doctors seem hesitant to highlight the risks of drinking. Cancer Research UK has a great summary of the evidence that alcohol causes or contributes to cancer, and British and Australian researchers are in the forefront of much of the research on the topic.

Weighing the Risks

Of course, it's also true that red wine appears to lower the risk of heart attack (though this appears to be more true for men than for women) and that a chemical found in red wine, called resveratrol, may be protective against cancer. How to balance the pros and cons? Experts say people at risk for cancer, because of a family history or other factors, should cut down on drinking or stop altogether. Those at risk for heart disease, on the other hand, might find a drink or two a day beneficial, but should talk to their doctors about balancing risks and benefits. And those interested in the resveratrol research should consider a supplement rather than trying to obtain sufficient quantities of the antioxidant from wine.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Thetruthaboutmortgage.com used under the Creative Commons attribution license.