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The Link Between Alcohol Use and Cancer

Excessive alcohol use can lead to many diseases, but is there a relationship between alcohol and cancer?

It has become more and more evident that alcohol use can initiate or exacerbate certain diseases and disorders. Research released from The American Cancer Society revealed that “alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer, along with tobacco and excess body weight.” Monitoring your alcohol consumption can help limit weight gain and prevent you from making decisions, such as smoking a cigarette, that you would not make sober. The American Cancer Society also warns that “alcohol use accounts for about 6% of all cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths in the United States.” Unfortunately, many people regularly consume alcohol without knowing about its link to cancer.

The Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Cancer

Reports from the National Cancer Institute indicate “a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer.” In these reports on carcinogens the “National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen,” and “the evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks – particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time – the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer.” Data from 2009 shows that an “estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.”

The most common cancers that have been linked to alcohol use include mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, colon, rectal, and breast. This is not an exhaustive list, as “alcohol probably also increases the risk of cancer of the stomach, and might affect the risk of some other cancers as well.” Unsurprisingly, the more alcohol an individual drinks, the more their risk of cancer increases. The Director of the Gastrointestinal Malignancies Program at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Alok Khorana explains why alcohol can increase the risk of cancer. When alcohol is metabolized, it is broken down in the body into the chemical acetaldehyde, which Khorana classifies as a carcinogen. This process “can damage DNA, which is most likely how alcohol causes [the increased] risk for cancer.”

Alcohol and Breast Cancer

Alcohol affects different parts of the body in different ways. For certain types of cancer, like breast cancer, consuming even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of developing cancer, and worsen symptoms if already present. Alcohol can contribute to breast cancer because it “can raise estrogen levels in the body, which may explain some of the increased risk.” Why can increased estrogen levels lead to cancer? Research has demonstrated that a woman’s risk of breast cancer is related to the estrogen and progesterone made by her ovaries (known as endogenous estrogen and progesterone). Long-term and/or high-level exposure to these hormones has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. It is important to acknowledge that decreasing alcohol intake may be an impactful way for many females to lower their risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol Use and Tobacco

Other variations of cancer, like mouth, throat, voice box, and esophageal, can worsen with tobacco use alongside alcohol consumption. It makes sense why drinking and smoking together increase the risk of developing cancers at a much higher rate; with liquor, the “harmful chemicals in tobacco get inside the cells that line the mouth, throat, and esophagus.” Alcohol can inhibit how cells naturally repair themselves and limits how “these cells can repair damage to their DNA, caused by the chemicals in tobacco.”

Alcohol and Liver Cancer

The liver is an essential part of processing and metabolizing alcohol. In fact, “most alcohol is broken down, or metabolized, by an enzyme in your liver cells known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). ADH breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, and then another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), rapidly breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate.” Long-term alcohol consumption is connected to an increased risk of developing liver cancer. One of the major contributing factors of this increased risk is liver damage, such as inflammation and scarring, caused by alcohol wreaking havoc on a healthy, functioning liver.

Colon and Rectal Cancer

While it may seem unrelated, alcohol use has also been associated with an increased risk of colon and rectal cancer. There is evidence of this connection, and according to all research, this link is stronger in men than in women. The prominent link between alcohol use and an increased risk of colon and rectal cancer is evident in both sexes. Professor and Director of the Division of Gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center, Dr. Mark Pochapin, explains that there is “good data from meta-analysis that shows the more you drink, the higher your risk is for colorectal cancer.” Pochapin describes how alcohol can increase the risk of developing benign growths, known as polyps, that have the potential to turn into colorectal cancer.

The American Cancer Society advises against drinking alcohol because of the link between alcohol use and cancer, but many people still choose to include alcohol as part of their lifestyle. Those who choose to drink “should limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women.” The recommended limit is lower for women because of their smaller body size and because their bodies tend to break down alcohol more slowly.

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, a life of sobriety brings many health benefits. Commit to your well-being and reduce the risk of developing cancer by maintaining abstinence from alcohol.

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