Alcohol-Related Cancer Risk

The Connection Between Alcohol and Cancer

Nearly 1 in 2 Canadians is expected to develop cancer in their lifetime and the effects can be devastating. If you’ve watched a family member battle cancer, maybe you’ve wondered about whether you share their genetic predisposition. This fear can lead you to examine whether external factors like diet, exercise, and environment might play a role in your chance of developing cancer. But how often do you think about alcohol consumption in relation to cancer? Science shows that alcohol can be a contributing factor in the development of certain kinds of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast. If you haven’t thought about the connection between alcohol and cancer before, you’re not alone; 7 out of 10 North Americans are unaware of this link because alcohol is so intertwined in our social lives that we don’t think twice about it. 

Alcohol is a part of our culture. It’s ingrained in the way we connect and it helps us to feel comfortable and confident in social interactions. Many people don’t realize the long-term effects of alcohol and often the short-term gain is not worth the health risks. Instead, we might take a reactive approach to our problems, including our health, but with a proactive approach, you can prevent alcohol-related cancers. To drive this home, another perspective you can consider is your dental health. While it can be a pain to brush and floss regularly, or to visit the dentist several times a year, it pays off in comparison to having to get a cavity filled. Checking in with your substance use can be similar to flossing your teeth, you may want to floss twice a day, or you may want to do so several times a week but your preventative and mindful approach will pay off in the long run. 

So what are the stats on alcohol and cancer?

The more you drink, the greater the likelihood that you will develop cancer and the more serious the cancer diagnosis will be. Those who drink two to three drinks or more per day are most at risk. Even if you don’t drink much, say, a few drinks a week, your risks are higher than for non-drinkers. Alcohol increases your risk to develop cancer in seven parts of your body and the most common type of cancer that alcohol causes are called squamous cell carcinoma, which lives in the lining of your esophagus. Colon and rectum cancer is also common and people who engage in heavy drinking have a 44% higher probability of getting colon or rectal cancer than those who choose not to drink. The risk of getting breast cancer is also increased in proportion with the amount of alcohol consumed weekly. 

So why is alcohol harmful? 

  1. DNA mutation: Alcohol has inflammatory properties and particularly, it has this effect on your organs and tissues. In defence, your body responds by trying to repair itself and this can lead to mistakes in your DNA which cause cancerous cells to grow. 
  2. Hormones: In women, alcohol can increase estrogen levels, which is a risk factor that can lead to the growth of cancer cells. 
  3. Toxic Chemicals: When your body processes the ethanol in alcohol, it makes a compound. Researchers believe that this compound causes cancer. 
  4. Nutrients: Alcohol compromises your immune system and it makes it more challenging for your body to absorb key vitamins which pose a cancer risk. These vitamins include B vitamins and folate, among others. 
  5. Weight Gain: Alcohol has sugars and carbohydrates that can lead you to put on weight and being overweight is a risk for developing cancer. 

As evidence and research continues to develop when it comes to alcohol and its role as a risk factor for cancer, one thing is for sure: the less alcohol you drink, the less risk you have of alcohol-related cancer. Studies have confirmed that the most serious risks come from drinking four or more drinks per day. It’s important to remember that many of us drink more than a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. So, it’s possible that you’re drinking outside of the limits that you set for yourself. Change doesn’t need to happen all at once but becoming mindful of the impact that alcohol can have on your body is an integral step to taking charge of your health. When it comes to cancer and alcohol, knowledge is power. 

It’s so easy to lose sight of what counts as one drink. Canada’s low-risk guidelines simplify the process of defining your limits. 

A drink means: 

  • Beer-341 mL, 12 oz, 5% alcohol content
  • Cider-341 mL, 12 oz, 5% alcohol content
  • Wine-142 mL, 5 oz, 12% alcohol content
  • Distilled alcohol (rye, gin, rum etc) 43 mL, 1.5 oz, 40% alcohol content

Taking care of your limits reduces your long-term health risks. For women that means:

  • 10 drinks a week for women 
  • No more than two drinks on most days

For men, the limits are:

  • 15 drinks per week 
  • No more than three drinks on most days

It is useful to:

  • Plan non-drinking days each week to avoid developing a habit
  • Consume no more than three drinks for women and four drinks for men on special occasions

Sometimes zero is the limit: 

  • Don’t drink and drive or operate machinery
  • Be mindful of the effect of alcohol in combination with medications
  • Alcohol interacts with physical and mental illnesses
  • Pregnant or planning to be pregnant

Safe drinking tips: 

  • Set limits for yourself and honour them
  • Monitor your pace; don’t have more than two drinks in three hours
  • For each drink, have a non-alcoholic drink
  • Eat before and throughout your drinking session
  • Consider your age, body weight, and health history
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