Alcohol’s Free Pass: The Hidden Cancer Risk

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As the opioid crisis continues to make national headlines, Rushford Medical Director Dr. J. Craig Allen cautions us not to overlook the dangers of alcohol.

“Excessive alcohol use leads to nearly 90,000 deaths a year in the United States,” Allen says.

Allen says people should be cognizant, not only of the obvious dangers like addiction, but also of the impact alcohol consumption can have on a person’s overall physical health, especially an increased risk in certain types of cancer.

“Alcohol has been given a free pass in a lot of ways because it’s such a part of our culture,” says Allen.

Allen says people should be cautious of recent studies that report that light to moderate drinking might actually be beneficial in preventing heart disease, stroke and diabetes. He says the known risks far outweigh any of the benefits.

“There’s pretty strong evidence that drinking more than the CDC recommended amount significantly increases your risk of cancer. The best strategy is not drinking at all,” Allen says.

The World Health Organization lists alcohol as a group one carcinogen alongside substances like tobacco and asbestos.  And the  American Cancer Society (ACS) links alcohol with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, pancreas, stomach, colon and breast.  According to the ACS, the correlation is simple: the more you drink, the greater your risk of developing these cancers.

“This isn’t new information,” says Dr. Peter Yu, physician in chief of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute.  “But, clearly, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk for cancers of the head and neck, stomach and other cancers in which it causes damage to the tissue.  It also impairs the immune system which is important in preventing and fighting cancer.” 

Yu says it’s difficult to compare tobacco use and alcohol consumption because there is societal acceptance of alcohol consumption, at least at some level. Yu says there is a need for more public education in the area of alcohol and cancer risk. 

“With alcohol it’s more about excess versus complete cessation. There’s that nuance of a little is OK and a lot isn’t,” Yu says.  “We’ve come a lot further in recognizing the harmful effects of smoking and we’re not there yet with alcohol. Generally, smoking isn’t acceptable in any situation. There’s no safe amount of tobacco. Alcohol is considered a legitimate and acceptable recreational drug.”

So if you drink, what is a safe amount?  The answer isn’t always clear as some studies show that any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of certain cancers.  To reduce the risk of “alcohol-related harm,” the CDC recommends that if alcohol is consumed, it should be done in moderation, which means up to one drink for women—12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits per day—and two drinks per day for men.

Dr. Allen says people need to be knowledgeable and recognize there are serious risks of abusing alcohol beyond addiction.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not very sexy to talk about how having a couple of beers with your friends could actually increase your risk of getting cancer.  I think the alcohol industry is well aware of the potential impact if the public got that message” Allen says. “We have warning labels on cigarettes, and on bottles of alcohol about the dangers of drinking for pregnant women. We don’t have them warning people about the link between alcohol and cancer. Maybe, it’s time we did.”

To learn more about alcohol abuse treatment, click here.


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