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The Surprising Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

Posted on by DCPC

Cancer and alcohol infographic
Infographic: Drinking alcohol raises the risk of some cancers. The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer.
By Dafna Kanny, PhD
Senior Scientist, Excessive Alcohol Use Prevention Team, Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch, CDC’s Division of Population Health

Working at CDC often means wearing your “expert hat” wherever you go. One weekend, while pushing my shopping cart in a grocery store, I ran into a CDC colleague I haven’t seen in a while. After catching up on the latest news about our kids, we started chatting about healthy foods; after all, we were at the grocery store.

The conversation quickly turned to our dinner plans for that evening. As a scientist in CDC’s Alcohol Program, I soon found myself wearing my “expert hat” and answering questions on how much alcohol can be consumed. I based my answer on the recommendations in the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, [PDF-967KB] which define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. My colleague was surprised to hear this, as is often the case when people learn about these Guidelines.

There is often a lot of confusion about alcohol consumption in the United States. What is clear, though, is that excessive drinking or drinking too much* is a serious public health problem. It kills about 88,000 Americans each year. In 2006, it cost the United States about $224 billion ($1.90 per drink).

Often when people think about the effects of drinking too much, images of car crashes or other fatal injuries come to mind. However, alcohol is also an important—though often overlooked—risk factor for cancer. In fact, studies have shown that alcohol was responsible for about 20,000 cancer deaths in the United States in 2009. Alcohol is known to be a risk factor for cancers of the head and neck (mouth, throat, and voice box), liver, colon, rectum, and breast. According to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, this risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Yet about 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drinks** an average of 4 times per month, and consumes an average of 8 drinks per binge episode, far exceeding the definition of moderate drinking specified in the Dietary Guidelines.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. So what should we be aware of? First, drinking too much is never a good idea. Second, if you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Lastly, there are effective ways to reduce excessive drinking that can help reduce the risk of cancer and of many other health problems too.

*Drinking too much includes binge drinking** (for women, 4 or more drinks on an occasion, within about 2 hours; for men, 5 or more drinks), heavy drinking (for women, 8 or more drinks per week; for men, 15 or more drinks per week), and any drinking by pregnant women or those younger than 21 years.

Posted on by DCPC

4 comments on “The Surprising Link Between Alcohol and Cancer”

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    I have just started to become aware of the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. 25 years ago I was very focused on the health benefits of drinking wine. After all these years I have realized as I watched all my friends become sick or almost die and even die from cancer, heart disease, liver problems, autoimmune diseases etc., the common link appeared to be alcohol consumption. I was selling wine and the people I worked with were on all kinds of medication yet talking about how great wine was for your health. I have recently discovered wine can cause gut inflammation and excessive heartburn. Yeasts in beer combined with all the GMO’s cause genetic problems and antibodies that lead to autoimmune disease. Hard liquor is too high in alcohol content. It is easy to understand drinking; people do not like to feel their emotions. They want their reality distorted. Life can overwhelm people. I think a lot of people don’t care anymore. I have lost a lot of friends to alcohol. And, marijuana hasn’t been studied enough to know the long term results on health. I don’t think we need anything that alters the mind. Nothing.

    Why do you claim EXCESSIVE when its just the normal everyday drinking ? And why is allowed to be served where children are present ? And WHy is it still advertised all over the place,sold in gas stations and evrywhere else including Pharmacies and drug stores? And how come It only pays pennies in taxes when smokers are paying 400% more in taxes and harming nobody ? Why the Hypocrisy and double Standard Saying EXCESSIVE DRINKING ? hmmmmmmmmmmmm

    My interest in the subject for personal health choices has brought me to the drinking/cancer relationship while still encountering extraneous factors in the decision to use alcohol or patronize a local beer bars. My perceived choice seems to be watching TV alone against visiting with “friends” at the bar. The information provided here presents useful, yet frightening, consequences. I continue to sense frustration regarding my choices.

    All around the world, we hear how cancer has been the cause of someone’s death. In the United States it is the second leading cause of death, after heart disease. The development of most cancer cases are still unknown, however, the fact that excessive alcohol consumption maybe a link to cancer is very astonishing. Many people like myself, thought that a certain amount of alcohol consumption is actually good for ones health. It helps reduce the risk of the number one cause of death in the United States, heart disease, yet what seemed moderate for us may not actually be the case. The misinterpreted moderate drinking habits that we all thought was healthy may in fact be the causing effect of high blood pressure, liver disease, pancreatic disease, and some types of strokes.
    The two most common assumptions linked to the cause of cancer are stress and genetic mutation. I am in shock to be informed that alcohol is also a common threat. We are all aware of alcohol consumption being a cause of serious health problems, some of which are cirrhosis of the liver and injuries sustained in automobile accidents. However, is alcohol the actual perpetrator of causing cancer or does it merely increase one’s risk? For me, I believe that it does not necessarily cause cancer but rather increases the risk in certain people. It would be of interest to look into one’s family’s health history, specifically their family tie to cancer, to see if there already exists a genetic predisposition to the disease.
    In my opinion, the studies linking heavy alcohol consumption to throat, liver, breast and mouth cancer should be spread throughout the world. There should be awareness campaigns, emphasizing the change in controversy of the consumption of alcohol drinks. Educating others is the singe most effective tool to spread good public health. With no education and awareness building, the world has no clear consciousness of good health habits and the strive for good public health would not be feasible. I would take upon myself in spreading the word about the information linking alcohol use to cancer. However, unfortunately just as the findings of smoking cigarettes causes cancer has not stopped a vast majority of people from smoking, this finding of alcohol triggering the same health problem might not make much of a difference either. Yet in hopes this might helping promote the scientific evidence, and encourage people to follow healthier lifestyle to not come across alcohol induced cancer.
    People need to be aware of what are actually considered as appropriate portions for alcohol use, yet these portions may differ for each individual. Social attitudes towards alcohol today are similar to those of cigarette use before, when it was not a threatening habit. Yet as time goes by future generation will hopefully be more aware of the consequences for excessive alcohol use and distinguish between enjoying portion and portions that can be dangerous.

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