Alcohol and cancer risk

Alcohol use has been linked to several health problems, including certain cancers. The amount of influence alcohol has over cancer risk is currently being researched and debated among researchers. Although some studies have found a definite increase in risk of certain cancers, others have reported a low significance of alcohol use. There are several theories on the role alcohol plays in cancer risk.

The main theory as to why alcohol may increase risk of cancer is that it irritates certain organs. Alcohol can cause damage to the mouth, throat and liver. When cells try to repair themselves over and over again, they have a higher probability of developing DNA mutations.

Combined with smoking tobacco products, drinking can be highly irritating to the mouth and throat. Researchers have found a definite link between smoking and drinking at the same time and mouth and throat cancer. The liver can develop scarring and inflammation from drinking, which can lead cells to repair faster.
A chemical called ethanol is present in all alcohol made for consumption. Ethanol is also thought to increase the risk of cancer. There is about the same amount of ethanol in one drink--12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor — across different types of alcohol. Cancer risk seems to correlate to the amount of alcohol consumed over time rather than the type of alcohol.

There is also a theorized link between alcohol and colorectal and breast cancer. Bacteria in the colon and rectum convert alcohol in a chemical called acetaldehyde, which has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Although not proven in humans, it is highly likely that there is a connection. Alcohol can also raise estrogen levels in women, and estrogen is a hormone that can cause breast cancer.

Women are encouraged by the American Cancer Society not to have even a few drinks a week. Alcohol is also theorized to inhibit the absorption of the nutrient folate. Women who don’t get enough folate, or vitamin B, are at especially high risk if they are drinkers.

However, the increase in risk of cancer due to alcohol is small, even in heavy drinkers. 96.5 percent of cancer deaths are not attributed to alcohol, and the risk of developing cancer only goes up about 1 percent even in heavy drinkers. The likelihood of developing cancer is high with or without alcohol use, and the slight increase in risk barely changes that. Because of the small increase in risk, it is largely up to the individual as to whether drinking is worth the risk or not.
It is indisputable, however, that drinking increases risk of heart disease and stroke, in addition to damaging the liver, pancreas and brain. It is important that even social drinkers understand the risk of consuming alcohol. Leading a healthy lifestyle, which includes limited alcohol use, remains the best way to reduce your cancer risk.