This may not be the first time that a sinister connection has been established between alcohol and cancer.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recently released a statement in the Journal of Clinical Oncology saying that even a moderate level of drinking may increase the chances of breast cancer in women and also expose them to the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
This group of nation’s leading doctors also cautions that heavy drinkers are at a greater risk of voice box cancer, mouth and throat cancer, liver cancer, and in some cases, colorectal cancer too.
Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is also the lead author of the ASCO paper, said that unlike smoking, drinking does not have to be an absolute no-no.
Even though several medical professionals have widely spoken and written about the risk of alcohol in causing cancer, this is the first time ASCO has weighed in on the subject.
Crackdown on Alcohol Advertising
According to various studies, alcohol consumption is increasing in the United States and it impacts all strata of the society that includes women, ethnic minorities, older adults, and even the poor.
The findings from the recent ASCO survey involving 4,016 adults revealed that there are only a few young adults who associate the risk of cancer with alcohol consumption, even though most of them are aware of other factors that can lead to cancer, such as smoking and exposure to the sun.
The group of doctors at ASCO aims to redirect attention towards evils of drinking and call for new public health policies to restrict the consumption of alcohol. A ban on alcohol advertising in New York’s subways and buses is going to take effect from January 2018, among other such impositions that are in the works.
ASCO is critical of companies that use techniques like “pinkwashing” that masks alcohol products in pink ribbons to increase sales. With reliable evidence that shows a link between increased risk of breast cancer and alcohol consumption, the group wants to curb such practices that promote drinking.
ASCO researchers also added in the statement that the previously published studies worldwide concluded that 5.5% of all new cancers and 5.8% of cancer deaths can be single-handedly attributed to alcohol. The paper very specifically states alcohol’s role in contributing to various types of cancer, more notably breast cancer in women.
Women need to exercise caution as just a single drink a day can expose them to the increased risk of breast cancer, revealed a report that was released by American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund in May.
The report analysis is based the data on 12 million women and two hundred fifty thousand breast cancer cases, establishing a compelling evidence that alcohol consumption enhances the vulnerability to pre and post-menopausal cancer. There is a 5% increase in the risk of breast cancer and 9% increase in the risk of post-menopausal cancer by consuming as little as 10 ml of alcohol!
If you think the key to healthy drinking lies in moderation, think again. Centers for Disease Control noted that even those who drink moderately, such as a drink a day for women and two drinks for men, face double the risk of mouth and throat cancer, as compared to nondrinkers.
The statistics for heavy drinkers look all the more abysmal with five times the risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer and mouth and throat cancers, as compared to nondrinkers. Needless to say, consuming as many as eight or more drinks a week for women exposes them to a higher risk of breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Experts say that these statistics are a clear indication that alcohol has a causal role in cancer.
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.