Alcohol and cancer risk

November 22, 2017
Sometimes announcements from medical societies can be more confusing than enlightening. Sometimes they are just a version of common sense.
 
The American Society of Clinical Oncology released a position statement that alcohol drinking is an established risk factor for several malignancies. Part of the announcement is quite helpful. If we change excessive drinking habits, we would all benefit.
 
Let’s get the common-sense parts off the table first. Cancer patients who drink a lot of alcohol during their cancer treatment don’t do as well. That’s a no-brainer. Sometimes people who drink too much also smoke and have higher rates of head and neck and upper GI cancers. That’s another piece of common knowledge.  
 
The meatier portions are thus. Take breast cancer for example. If you are a non-drinker, your risk of cancer due to alcohol would be none, or in scientific terms, 1.00. Light alcohol consumption raises the relative risk to 1.04. What is a standard serving of alcohol? This translates into 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or one shot of 80 percent liquor. Take a group of 40-year-old women who are light drinkers. One of 1667 of them would develop breast cancer. The remainder would not. 
 
What about heavy alcohol? The National Cancer Institute says heavy alcohol drinking is defined as having more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week for women and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men. That same 40-year-old woman would have an absolute risk of 2.33 percent. That is not terrible. Would it be better if she didn’t drink that much? Sure, for many reasons. Maybe if she were at high risk based on her family history and wanted to do everything to reduce her risk, then not drinking would be wise. Or just a glass of champagne for New Year’s would be fine. 

What about other cancers? There is no doubt that drinking heavily raises risk for head and neck cancer, cancer of the upper GI tract. Even if you don’t smoke. If Uncle Charlie routinely overindulges at family gatherings, you might want to talk to him about this report.  

That being said, many of us have family members who drink too much during the holidays and every day. It is never a bad time to show these folks some love by telling them what doctors have to say about alcohol. 

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