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Alcohol may be linked to cancer

April 09, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey

The latest alarming headlines warn that alcohol may raise your risk for certain cancers—not exactly a finding to which to raise your glass tonight. But don’t abandon those evening plans just yet. 

A team of European researchers who tracked about 364,000 people in eight countries found that overall cancer risk increases with every extra daily drink, at least in regular drinkers. Overall, some 10% of cancers in men and 3% of cancers in women may be linked to alcohol, they calculated. The findings were published online Thursday in the British Medical Journal.

Certain cancers were particularly booze-related. The researchers found that 44% of cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract (including the mouth, throat and esophagus) in men might be linked to alcohol (25% in women), followed by liver cancer (33% in men, 18% in women) and colorectal cancer (17% in men, 4% in women).

About 5% of breast cancers in women may be attributable to alcohol, the researchers  said. This study backs up other research that found links between boozing and cancer.  In 2009, the Million Women Study found that for every extra drink regularly consumed per day, there are 15 extra cancers per 1,000 women. 

But keep in mind that the study doesn’t prove that alcohol causes 10% of all cancer in men, for example – the study found a solid correlation between alcohol and cancer risk, and the researchers had to assume the causation to calculate how many cancers alcohol would cause. 

The American Cancer Society agrees there’s no question that alcohol raises the risk of cancer in the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus. The alcohol may act as a solvent to the lining of the digestive tract, allowing harmful chemicals through (especially tobacco from smoking). 

Heavy drinkers already subject their livers to an increased risk of cirrhosis, but alcohol can further damage liver cells, leading to inflammation and higher risk of cancer, the ACS explains. And in women, drinking may change estrogen levels, increasing the risk of breast cancer.

That’s not to say alcohol might not have benefits. Drinking moderately every day (one drink for women, one to two drinks for men) has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. 

A comment posted about the findings went so far as to say: “The way this is being reported in the media is quite disgusting that drinking is bad for you, when the empirical evidence is the complete opposite.”

True, the study findings aren't the best news for a Friday night. But the take-home message is this: Overall cancer risk, and especially risk for some cancers, does seem to increase the more you drink. But if you’re worried about cancer, sip, don’t chug, the night away. Moderation in all things, after all.

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