The Big Picture
Susan Gapstur, epidemiology Vice President at the American Cancer Society said that this is not the first time a connection between alcohol consumption and cancer has been established. In 1987, The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized drinking alcoholic beverages as carcinogenic to humans.
Since then, there has been more telling evidence accumulated over the years, tethering alcohol to other types of cancers. Dr. Gapstur also added that the ill-effects of alcohol have been consistently revealed through study after study. After analyzing evidence from lab studies, observational epidemiology, and the mechanistic studies, one cannot help but notice the picture getting clearer.
According to Dr. Gapstur, alcohol may contribute to the development of cancer because of the way our body processes it into acetaldehyde that modifies the DNA and causes its mutation. Alcohol becomes acetaldehyde when it comes in contact with bacteria in the mouth. This may explain the connection between liquor and cancers to the mouth, voice box, and esophagus.
The Turning Point
The recent ASCO report that focuses on alcohol consumption with regard to breast cancer is the first such attempt by a group of noted oncologists to establish a veritable link. Dr. Anne McTiernan of Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center who authored one of the earlier reports said that this report reflects the seriousness of the medical profession towards the growing health risks associated with drinking.
This may well be the turning point in favor of critical policy changes being implemented on the grounds that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of some cancers to a considerable degree.
Study author Dr. LoConte also weighed in saying that the report has enough evidence to suggest that alcohol may also be the cause of pancreatic, stomach and other cancers. The most recent estimation revealed that as many as 21,000 deaths in the US in 2009 can be attributed to alcohol alone.
Alcohol’s Impact on Different Body Parts
The purveyors of alcohol consumption often debate if it is alcohol alone or combination of elements in certain alcoholic beverages that may cause cancer. The report from ASCO ends the debate by stating that there is a consistent evidence linking alcohol to cancer risk, regardless of what type of alcoholic beverage you are drinking.
Dr. LoConte explains the chemical composition of alcohol and the way it affects the body. When you drink liquor, it does not affect each part of the body in the same way. For instance, acetaldehyde comes in direct contact with the tissues in your mouth as you swallow the drink that can lead to esophageal, mouth, and throat cancers.
On the other hand, liver cancer is caused due to cirrhosis, the process in which healthy liver cells are replaced by beat-up scar tissue cells to become cancer cells. This process is triggered by drinking alcohol.
Colon cancer, Dr. LoConte explains, is caused when alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate.
Alcohol’s connection with breast cancer stems from a shift in estrogen levels. Unusually high levels of estrogen can put women at increased risk of breast cancer. Drinking is known to increase the estrogen levels, hence the risk.
Dr. LoConte says that people who don’t drink should not start. However, for someone who drinks, experts recommend staying below the permissible levels of 1 drink per day for women and 2 per day for men. However, she also adds that heavy drinkers can curb their risk by simply cutting down on their alcohol consumption.
Is Quitting the Answer?
The most relevant question at this stage, both for causality evaluation and for the provision of guidance and necessary intervention to patients, is whether or not quitting alcohol consumption altogether will reduce the risk of alcohol-associated cancers. If the analysis and studies are any indication, then the risk of cancer declines significantly in people who quit drinking than those who continue drinking, even if only in moderation.Related: 6 Warning Signs of Stomach Cancer
The evidence looks promising as it reveals that the risk of cancer may get reduced to a level seen in non-drinkers in the long run after complete cessation of alcohol drinking. However, the real impact of alcohol on someone’s health requires further investigation before different studies may arrive at more definitive conclusions.