KNOW THE RISKS:

Genetics, environment, and lifestyle habits can all heighten your risk of getting cancer. We can’t do anything to change our genes, and we often can’t do much to change our environment. But lifestyle habits are a different story.
Drinking too much alcohol is one lifestyle habit that can increase your risk of developing certain cancers. This does not mean that anyone who drinks too much will develop cancer. But numerous studies do show the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of developing certain types of cancer.

For example, a group of Italy-based scientists reviewed more than 200 studies examining alcohol’s impact on cancer risk.The collective results of these studies clearly demonstrate that the more you drink, the higher your risk for developing a variety of cancers.The National Cancer Institute identifies alcohol as a risk factor for the following types of cancer:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Pharynx
  • Larynx
  • Liver
  • Breast

At least 7 out of 10 people with mouth cancer drink heavily. Drinking five or more drinks per day can also increase your risk of developing other types of cancers, including colon or rectal cancer. In fact, summary estimates from the recent World Cancer Research Fund report indicate that women who drink five standard alcohol drinks each day have about 1.2 times the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer than women who do not drink at all.
People who drink are also more likely to smoke, and the combination increases the risk significantly. Smoking alone is a known risk factor for some cancers. But smoking and drinking together intensifies the cancer-causing properties of each substance. The overall effect poses an even greater risk.

The risk of throat and mouth cancers is especially high because alcohol and tobacco both come in direct contact with those areas. Overall, people who drink and smoke are 15 times more likely to develop cancers of the mouth and throat than nondrinkers and nonsmokers. In addition, recent studies estimate that alcohol and tobacco together are responsible for:

  • 80 percent of throat and mouth cancer in men
  • 65 percent of throat and mouth cancer in women
  • 80 percent of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, a type of esophagus cancer
  • 25 to 30 percent of all liver cancers

WOMEN AND CANCER

One recent, groundbreaking study followed the drinking habits of 1.2 million middle-aged women over 7 years. The study found that alcohol increases women’s chances of developing cancers of the breast,mouth, throat, rectum, liver, and esophagus. The researchers link alcohol to about 13 percent of these cancer cases.

In addition, the study concluded that cancer risk increases no matter how little or what kind of alcohol a woman drinks. Even one drink a day can raise risk, and it continues to rise with each additional drink. While men did not participate in this study, the researchers believe this risk is likely similar for men.

This study also attributes about 11 percent of all breast cancer cases to alcohol. That means that of the 250,000 breast cancer cases diagnosed in the United States in 2008, about 27,000 may stem from alcohol.

KNOW THE REASONS:

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how and why alcohol can promote cancer. There are a variety of possible explanations.

One explanation is that alcohol itself is not the primary trigger for cancer.We know that metabolizing, or breaking down, alcohol results in harmful toxins in the body. One of these toxins is called acetylaldehyde. Acetylaldehyde damages the genetic material in cells—and renders the cells incapable of repairing the damage. It also causes cells to grow too quickly, which makes conditions ripe for genetic changes and mistakes. Cancer can develop more easily in cells with damaged genetic material.

In addition, recent animal studies have shown that as cells try to break down alcohol, they cause the body to produce additional amounts of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).VEGF promotes the growth of blood vessels and organ tissue. But, the flip side of having too muchVEGF is that it allows blood vessels to grow in cancer cells that would die on their own. This allows the cancer cells to develop into tumors.
We also know that alcohol can damage the liver, causing cirrhosis. Cirrhosis results when too much scar tissue builds up within the liver and leaves it unable to perform its vital functions. One of the many complications that can result from cirrhosis is liver cancer.

Hormones may be the link between alcohol and breast cancer. Alcohol can increase the amounts of some hormones in the body, including estrogen. An excess of estrogen may lead to breast cancer.

Finally, genetics may play a role in preventing some heavy drinkers from developing cancer. A European research team examined 9,000 people with similar lifestyle habits to determine why some of them developed mouth and throat cancers, and some did not. Of the participants who were heavy drinkers, those who did not develop cancers had a particular genetic alteration that enabled them to break down alcohol about 100 times faster than in those without it. The study suggested that this gene is the reason why some people are less likely to develop cancer in response to heavy drinking.

KNOW THERE’S A BRIGHT SIDE

Fortunately, studies show that you can reduce your risk for cancer by drinking less. A recent Canadian report analyzed studies from 1966 through 2006 and concluded that risk reduction is possible, specifically for head and neck cancers.The study found that as people abstained from drinking, their risk for developing cancer plunged. After 20 years of abstinence, former drinkers had the same risk for head and neck cancers as people who never drank.

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