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Alcohol Blamed for 1 in Every 30 Cancer Deaths: Study

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Feb. 14 (HealthDay News) -- For anyone who still thinks that drinking does not contribute to cancer, a new report finds that alcohol is to blame for one in every 30 cancer deaths each year in the United States.

The connection is even more pronounced with breast cancer, with 15 percent of those deaths related to alcohol consumption, the researchers added.

And don't think that drinking in moderation will help, because 30 percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths are linked to drinking 1.5 drinks or less a day, the report found.

Alcohol is a cancer-causing agent that's in "plain sight," but people just don't see it, said study author Dr. David Nelson, director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

"As expected, people who are higher alcohol users were at higher risk, but there was really no safe level of alcohol use," he stressed.

Moderate drinking has been associated with heart benefits, Nelson noted. "But, in the broader context of all the issues and all the problems that alcohol is related to, alcohol causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents," he said.

The best thing people who believe they are at risk for cancer can do is reduce their alcohol consumption, Nelson said. "From a cancer prevention perspective, the less you drink, the lower your risk of an alcohol-related cancer and, obviously, if one doesn't drink at all then that's the lowest risk," he said.

The report was published online Feb. 14 in the American Journal of Public Health.

To determine the risks related to drinking and cancer, Nelson's team compiled data from a variety of sources, including the 2009 Alcohol Epidemiologic Data System, the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the 2009-2010 National Alcohol Survey.

Along with breast cancer in women, cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were also common causes of alcohol-related cancer deaths in men, accounting for about 6,000 deaths each year.

Each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost, the researchers added.

Previous studies have shown drinking is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and, in women, breast cancer, the researchers noted.

According to the American Cancer Society, it's not entirely clear how alcohol might raise cancer risk. Alcohol might act as a chemical irritant to sensitive cells, impeding their DNA repair, or damage cells in other ways. It might also act as a "solvent" for other carcinogens, such as those found in tobacco smoke, helping those chemicals enter into cells more easily. Or alcohol might affect levels of key hormones such as estrogen, upping odds for breast cancer.

One expert says the findings in this study are consistent with what has been shown before.

"Nobody is recommending that if you do not drink to start drinking for any reason," said Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology at the cancer society. "If you do drink, limit your consumption."

Gapstur did point out that smoking is a much more powerful factor in cancer deaths than alcohol. Although some 20,000 cancer deaths can be attributed to alcohol each year, more than 100,000 cancer deaths are caused by smoking, she said.

To strike a balance between the cancer risk of drinking and its possible benefit in preventing heart disease, Gapstur suggested talking with your doctor about the risks and benefits of drinking.

More information

For more on alcohol and cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: David Nelson, M.D., M.P.H., director, Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, U.S. National Cancer Institute; Susan Gapstur, Ph.D., M.P.H., vice president of epidemiology, American Cancer Society; Feb. 14, 2013, American Journal of Public Health, online

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