Author: Christin Sander, Health Writer
A study published in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Public Health states 3.5% (20,000) of all yearly cancer deaths are caused by alcohol consumption. Although there is a strong relationship between alcohol and cancer, it's not as emphasized as things like tobacco, despite being another large preventable risk factor.
The World Health Organization has labeled alcohol as one of the five dietary and behavioral factors that lead to cancer, along with improper nutrition, tobacco use, obesity and lack of exercise. Most deaths associated with alcohol were attributed to people who drink more than three alcoholic beverages per day. Higher rates of consumption increase the risk for developing cancer.
The biggest concern with alcohol for women may be the link to breast cancer. Researchers have found that 15% of all breast cancer deaths may be linked to alcohol. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), women who consume three or more drinks per week have an increased risk of breast cancer. They also state that consumption earlier and later in life both increase risk. Alcohol has also been shown to affect estrogen levels in women.
In men, cancers of the esophagus, mouth, larynx and pharynx appeared to be most commonly related to alcohol consumption. Alcohol is not a direct cause of cancer, but is thought to be a cocarcinogen, meaning it enhances the cancer causing effects of other chemicals. Animal studies have shown alcohol enhances tobacco's ability to stimulate the formation of tumors in rats. The risk of mouth and esophageal cancers are 35 times higher for those who both smoke and drink than for those who do neither, which suggests there is in fact a cocarcinogenic effect.
Alcohol is also a major factor in liver cancer. Alcohol alters the liver's ability to metabolize toxins and break them down into harmless compounds for elimination. Deaths from liver cancer are higher among heavy drinkers. 80% of those with liver cancer also have cirrhosis of the liver, a disease commonly attributed to the long-term effects of heavy drinking.
Unfortunately, it's not just heavy drinkers who face an increased cancer risk. Research from the American Journal of Public Health has concluded that even moderate drinking has an effect. As little as one drink per day may increase your cancer risk.
It's also important to consider the link between regular alcohol consumption and obesity. Studies have shown that regular consumption of alcohol negatively affects the body's metabolism, leading to weight gain. Obesity is another major risk factor for the development of several cancers. Alcohol, rather than being a direct cause of cancer, seems to have several synergistic qualities that lead to increased risks.
Current guidelines by the American Cancer Society recommend that people who drink alcohol limit themselves to one drink per day for women and two for men. The amount is lower for women because their bodies tend to metabolize alcohol more slowly. Although moderate drinking has been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, there is no safe amount of alcohol and all consumption carries some risk.