Alcohol-related cancer may seem like something that would affect only heavy drinkers, but according to a new study, having even one drink per day can put you at risk for cancer.
How do you think the cast of ‘Cougartown’ would react to this news? On the show, Courtney Cox’s character, Jules and her friends are always drinking at least one drink or more.
Researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that alcohol-related cancer accounted for 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States in 2009 — and even light and moderate drinkers were at significant risk.
The link between cancer and alcohol consumption has been established by previous studies, but this new study quantifies the risk, death rates, and years of life lost in a way previously unseen.
Approximately 560,000 people died from cancer in 2009, the year for which the researchers analyzed alcohol-related cancer death rates. Of those deaths, nearly 20,000 were caused by alcohol-linked cancers, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health.
“People talk about how to prevent cancer, and about avoiding tobacco and eating better, but this an issue that we think has been missed,” says David Nelson MD, study author and Director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. “20,000 deaths is a large number.” Each of those deaths accounted for approximately 18 years of potential life lost, the researchers report.
Alcohol-related cancer affected men and women equally in 2009, but with different cancers. While women with alcohol-related cancer were most likely to die from breast cancer, men were most likely to have died from oral, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancer,
While researchers are not exactly sure how alcohol may lead to cancer, it is clear that poor health habits – not just drinking – play a major role in cancer risk. Dr. Nelson says that people who drink a lot often also have a poor diet and/or smoke, which, coupled with alcohol use, puts them at a greater risk for developing cancer.But Nelson thinks the purported benefits of alcohol consumption are overrated when compared to the risks. “Even if you took into account all the potential benefits of alcohol,” he says, “it causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents worldwide.”
However, notes Jernigan, most people don’t want to hear that going to the bar after work could be setting you up for cancer down the line.
“The message that alcohol could be good for you resonates so much more pleasantly than the message that alcohol can kill you,” he says. “We are deeply ambivalent about alcohol because we want to enjoy it and not think about its health effects.”
The most important thing, Nelson believes, is to make people understand that alcohol is a carcinogen. While it may be impossible to get people to stop drinking, making them aware of the dangers can help them make smarter decisions.
“We spend a lot of time talking about potential cancer-causing agents, but alcohol is missing from the discussion,” he says. “If people really want to reduce their cancer risk, one of the things they can do is avoid alcohol.”
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