Alcohol and cancer risk: How are they connected?

A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that reducing or eliminating alcohol use decreases the risk of developing oral cancer and esophageal cancer — and that for certain cancers, the longer a person is alcohol-free, the lower the risk.

We asked Misagh Karimi, M.D., a medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancer at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center and the director of clinical operations at City of Hope Newport Beach, to discuss the link between drinking alcohol and developing cancer.

Q: Should we be surprised by the report’s conclusions?

A: The NEJM report adds to decades of research finding a connection between consumption of ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol) and cancer. We also know that know that eliminating or reducing alcohol use can significantly decrease the risk of certain cancers, although the research in this area continues to evolve.

Importantly, ethanol is found in all alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer and spirits and can therefore potentially increase cancer risk. In general, the greater the amount of alcohol a person drinks, the higher their risk of cancer, and there is evidence that the most important factor may be the amount of alcohol consumed over time.

Q: How does alcohol consumption lead to cancer?

A: Your body metabolizes the alcohol you drink into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen. Acetaldehyde can damage DNA and potentially contribute to tumor formation and cell and liver damage, although we do not yet fully understand the associations and mechanisms.

Q: Is there a “safe” level of drinking with respect to cancer risk?

A: There is no scientifically established “safe” amount a person can drink, any more than there is a safe number of cigarettes a person can smoke. When it comes to cancer prevention, drinking less is better, and not drinking at all is best. Quitting alcohol today will not instantly reduce cancer risk, but over time the benefits will make an impact. For people who choose to drink alcohol, guidelines suggest no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Q: In addition to quitting alcohol, what other things can people do to reduce their overall cancer risk?

A: Eliminating or reducing alcohol is one of a number of actions we can take to reduce the chances of getting cancer. As a medical oncologist, one of my most frequent recommendations to patients is to make — and maintain – healthy lifestyle changes as part of their cancer prevention or treatment plan. Those changes typically include eliminating alcohol use, quitting tobacco if used, increasing intake of green, leafy vegetables and whole grains, reducing or eliminating highly processed foods, maintaining a healthy body weight and being physically active.

Q: What else should we know about alcohol and cancer risk?

A: Studies have shown that even low amounts of alcohol consumption increase the risk of other types of cancer including mouth and throat, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver and breast cancers. We have also seen that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to other chronic diseases over time, such as high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems and heart disease. Patients with cancer — and cancer survivors — should speak with their oncologist about their alcohol intake and ways to reduce or eliminate drinking if needed.

When it comes to cancer, it’s Hope First. Call 888-333-HOPE (4673).